Guest Author - Jason P. Ruel
The Westboro Baptist Church lost it’s first First Amendment challenge. The “church” known for it’s “God Hates Fags”, "Thank God for dead soldiers", "God hates fag enablers”, and “God hates America” picket signs got a wake-up call when it was sued by the family of Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, an American Warrior Hero who lost his life in Iraq.
The “church”, which is not associated with any officially known denomination/church in the United States, is run by it’s founder and church leaders the” Reverend” Fred Phelps and his two daughters, Shirley Phelps-Roper and Rebecca Phelps-Davis. It is a fundementalist church that even though it’s name says it is a Baptist Church, is not affiliated with any of the Baptist Denominations in the United States. They are famous for their constant pickets of military funerals in the belief that the war in Iraq is a punishment for the nation's tolerance of homosexuality. They also picket the funerals of people who have died from AIDS, police personell, and other leaders/persons of authority, because they say it is their way of spreading the word of God and the fact that this country is a nation of Godless enablers who are morally corrupt and are doomed to burn in Hell for all eternity. They are hoping to spread salvation and to bring back the moral order to this country and it’s people.
This case was brought by Albert Snyder of York, Pennsylvania, for unspecified damages after members demonstrated (within 1000 feet as per law) at the March 2006 funeral of his son who had died a soldier in Iraq. Due to this “church” and it’s constant picketing of funerals, numerous states have passed laws regarding funeral protests, and Congress has passed a law prohibiting such protests at federal cemeteries. This is believed to be the first of it’s kind case where a family of a fallen soldier has sued in Federal Court the “church” and it’s members.
The “Reverend” and his leaders were found liable for invasion of privacy and intent to inflict emotional distress. Snyder (the Father) claimed the protests intruded upon what should have been a private ceremony and sullied his memory of the event. He testified that he had been physically ill and had nightmares of the funeral because of the protesters and their signs outside his sons funeral. The church members testified they are following their religious beliefs by spreading the message that the deaths of soldiers are due to the nation's tolerance of homosexuality. Their attorneys argued that the burial was a public event and that even abhorrent points of view are protected by the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of speech and religion.
However, earlier in the case, it was argued that the First Amendment Protections only went so far when the speech infringed upon someone else and caused them mental and physical distress or harm. The jury sided with the plantiff in this case by awarding $2.9 million in compensatory damages, $6 million in punitive damages for invasion of privacy and $2 million for causing emotional distress. U.S. District Judge Richard Bennett noted the size of the award for compensating damages "far exceeds the net worth of the defendants," according to financial statements filed with the court.
What happens to this “church” and it’s members still remains to be seen as there will obviously be appeals made by the “church” and it’s members, or the “church” will go broke and not pay a single penny to the family. This case sends a resounding message to those who hide behind the First Amendment to spew forth hate and vileness that there is only so much that the Constitution can protect. Haters beware, the law protects BOTH sides.