WASHINGTON (RNS) The U.S. Supreme Court agreed on Monday (March 8) to decide whether the father of a fallen soldier can sue religious protesters for picketing at his son’s funeral with signs that read “Thank God for dead soldiers.”
The case will test the boundaries of the Constitution by weighing whether extreme speech that inflicts emotional pain — especially at sensitive venues such as memorials — should be protected by the First Amendment.
Members of Westboro Baptist Church, led by pastor and founder Fred Phelps in Topeka, Kansas, have protested at military funerals to express their belief that America is being punished for tolerance of homosexuality.
Westboro protestors traveled to Westminster, Md., to picket at the funeral of Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, who killed in combat in Iraq on March 3, 2006.
They marched around the outskirts of St. John’s Catholic Church and the cemetery with signs that read “God Hates the USA,” “Fag troops” and “Pope in hell.” After the funeral, Phelps also posted material on his Web site against the fallen Marine, saying his father had “taught Matthew to defy his creator” and “raised him for the devil.”
Snyder’s father sued Phelps for invasion of privacy and for intentionally inflicting emotional distress. Snyder received $10.9 million in damages but a judge modified the jury’s amount to $5 million.
The decision was reversed last September by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The court threw out the verdict on the basis of the First Amendment’s protection of free speech.
“Whatever that U.S. Supreme Court does is going to be beautiful because now the whole world is looking at this situation,” said Phelps’ daughter, Shirley Phelps-Roper, a church spokeswoman. “It’s given us a huge megaphone and furthermore, we get to talk to the conscience of this nation that’s responsible for this horrible mess that this country is in.”
— Kimberlee Hauss
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