Belief Beat

The Supreme Court has agreed to weigh in on whether the Westboro Baptist Church had the right to picket a military funeral with signs like “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” and “Fag Troops.” As Religion News Service reports, the justices will decide whether extreme speech that inflicts emotional pain — especially at sensitive venues such as memorials — is protected by the First Amendment. The case will be argued this fall.

Some background information: the Kansas-based church, run by the Phelps family (which also seems to be the crux of its congregation), is classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Check out this New York Times story and the Religion Clause blog for more legal information about this case and related precedents.

I saw the Westboro Baptist Church in action a few years ago, while covering Pope Benedict’s visit to New York. The handful of members, merrily waving placards with distinctive messages like

“God Hates Fags” and “Priests Rape Boys,” were roped in with the groups of atheists, Pentecostals and sex abuse survivors (each trying their best to keep their distance) within the designated protest area a few blocks south of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Over all the chanting, I could almost hear that old Sesame Street ditty in my head: “Three of these things belong together… but one of these things just doesn’t belong here!”

Or, to paraphrase Saturday Night Live’s old “Coffee Talk” sketch: The Westboro Baptist Church is neither Baptist nor a Church… discuss?!

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