“Thank God for Dead Soldiers” and “You’re Going to Hell” were the only things that Albert Snyder could see during the funeral of his only son, Matthew – who was killed in Iraq in 2006. These messages were displayed on signs outside the funeral by Reverend Fred W. Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church. They’ve continued to insult Snyder and his son Matthew ever since. Snyder sued the church for invasion of privacy and inflicting intentional emotional distress. A lower court awarded Snyder $5 million, but that decision was reversed on appeal. Snyder then appealed his case to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court recently heard arguments in this case, and a decision is expected soon.
It’s important to know the Westboro Baptist Church’s track record. Its first protests were against Matthew Shepard, a man beat to death because he was a homosexual, and Coretta Scott King, a leader in the Civil Rights Movement. In 2009, it protested the funeral of a SUNY Buffalo student. In response, fellow students formed a shield to block the protesters and keep them out of sight of family members.
The funeral of Elizabeth Edwards is also among the church’s recent targets. The Phelps family and some members of their congregation also protested at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. On Jan 11, 2011, the church declared its intent to protest at 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green’s funeral after she was killed in a shooting rampage that left six people dead and Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) in critical condition. The Arizona legislature then passed a law to stop protests at funerals; a similar Ohio law was recently held to be constitutional.
The original court ruled the Phelps family’s actions an invasion of privacy, even though they weren’t in the cemetery. I find invasion of privacy to be somewhat difficult to prove, though funerals do need special standards. Inflicting emotional distress is easier to prove. The protests aggravated Snyder’s diabetes and made him depressed.
During the oral arguments in front of the Supreme Court, Margie Phelps, daughter of Fred Phelps and lawyer for the family, came under fire from nearly every justice. Justice Samuel Alito presented her with a hypothetical involving an old lady attending her grandson’s funeral and a disrespectful protester who insults her. Margie Phelps responded that she did not believe that the instance described was an invasion of privacy, but was instead an utterance of fighting words – an exception to the First Amendment that is against the law. In other words, Phelps said, “We didn’t invade his privacy, we’re just guilty of a crime.”
However, there is another charge that I would bring against Westboro Baptist Church and the Phelpses – harassment. Snyder had to watch them picket as he drove to his son’s funeral, as he watched it, as he left it and on the television once he got home. He’s also received more hate mail from the Phelps family. The church recently posted an “epic poem” online titled “The Burden of Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew A. Snyder,” which, among other things, says to his parents, “You raised him for the devil.” This made Snyder so upset that he vomited. In a perhaps darkly ironic twist, Kansas police recently arrested a veteran for stalking members of the church.
The actions of the Phelps family are also treasonous, as they attempt to incite violence against American soldiers and support terrorism. For example, they promoted the use of improvised explosive devices (IED). Not to mention that they openly supported Saddam Hussein against the United States. Iowan prosecutors have already filed charges against the church for stomping on an American flag.
Some proponents of the First Amendment are afraid of a reversal by the Court, but a ruling in favor of Mr. Snyder in this case would not necessarily say that people cannot protest war or homosexuality. It would send the message that people cannot harass specific individuals to the point of emotional distress. Thus, a reversal would be the right decision – and, hopefully, the one that will be issued, because the Supreme Court “doesn’t usually hear arguments just to affirm.”