Monday, May 31, 2010

Fallen Heroes - May They Rest in Peace?

by Donna Pendergast

The United States Supreme Court will consider a landmark case in their next court term beginning in October. They will hear the case of a Maryland man whose slain soldier son's funeral was targeted for picketing by the Topeka, Kansas, based Westboro Baptist Church and its leader Fred Phelps.

The zealot church was comprised mostly of Phelps' 13 children -- 11 of whom are attorneys; one son is said to be estranged from the family -- and his grandchildren has no affiliation with mainstream Baptist organizations. They have made a practice of demonstrating at military funerals to complain of the U.S. government's tolerance of homosexuality and of gays in the military. They believe that God is punishing soldiers who are defending a country that has a "policy of accepting homosexuals." The group regularly posts a schedule of their picket activities and appears at military funerals with signs in hand to bring attention to their anti-government and anti-homosexual positions.

Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder of Finksburg, Maryland, died of injuries suffered in a non-combat vehicle accident in Al-Anbar province Iraq. The Westboro church staged a demonstration at his March 2006 funeral in Maryland, rallying, chanting anti gay slogans and carrying signs with statements like "Thank God for dead soldiers" and "Semper Fi Fags" as the mourners grieved. Members of the church had never met Matthew, who was not gay, nor any members of his family. Snyder's father later sued the church for invading his privacy and inflicting emotional distress, igniting the legal battle that has now reached the Supreme Court. The lawsuit also contained defamation charges for statements made on the Internet that Al Snyder "raised his son for the devil" and "taught his son adultery." Snyder won $2.9 million in compensatory damages and $8 million in punitive damages in October 2007. In 2008 the award was cut down by the judge upon a motion to $5 million.

In September 2009, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Richmond, Virginia, reversed that judgment on appeal, finding in favor of free speech rights of the demonstrators. To add insult to injury, Snyder's father was ordered to pay over $16,000 of the church's legal costs incurred in defending the suit. Scores of outraged soldiers, citizens and veterans' groups have rallied behind Mr. Snyder's suit, and donations to the legal cost fund continue to flow in. This past March, the United States Supreme Court agreed to hear the case in the fall.

Shirley Phelps-Roper, mother of 11 children and the most visible spokesperson for the church besides her father, is known to spew hateful vitriol, including threats of eternal damnation. In her own vile manner she consistently engages with members of the media and public, arguing that the First Amendment protects her rights to say what she wants. She testified at trial that the "Semper Fi Fags" sign used at Snyder's funeral means "You are always faithful to the fags." She further testified that it was her duty to deliver the message "whether you wanted to hear it or not."

Snyder's lawyers have argued that the church members' actions interfered with the Snyders' rights to bury their son at a religious gathering that was entitled to constitutional protection. They argue that while Phelps and his supporters may have a constitutionally protected right to protest, it shouldn't come at the expense of the Snyders' rights to gather peacefully at their son's funeral. Recent disclosures that Mr. Snyder did not learn of the protest until after the funeral may diminish the viability of the Snyders' claim on that point.

The federal government and 46 states have enacted laws that regulate picketing and other forms of disruptive behavior during a funeral. Proponents of the laws argue that funeral protection laws do not infringe on First Amendment rights, and that freedom of speech does not trump the right to bury in peace a loved one killed in defense of our nation. Opponents of the laws argue that the right to free speech trumps all even when the speech is offensive and repugnant. Soon the Supreme Court will address these tough issues in this case that goes to the core of First Amendment guarantees. What is so ironic is that the First Amendment rights that Phelps and his flock hide behind have been paid for by the same military whose deaths and funerals they so viciously and hatefully mock.

Members of the church plan to be at Arlington National Cemetery today to picket the wreath-laying ceremony and the Memorial Day parade. While the hatemongers spew their venom, may the rest of us remember the men and women who have so honorably served their country, and say a prayer of thanks for their courage, selflessness and dedication. We recognize the hardship, suffering and sacrifice they endured to let us live the lives that we lead. On Memorial Day and every day, we remember with respect those who have fought to defend democratic ideals and secure our freedom. With deep gratitude, we salute our country's brave and honorable veterans.

Statements made in this post are my own and do not reflect the views, opinion or position of the Michigan Attorney General or the Michigan Department of Attorney General.


Maryannwrites said...

I am appalled all over again every time I read about that group that pickets the funerals of soldiers.

California Girl said...

This "church" aka hate group needs to have its tax status changed.