By Ruben Castaneda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 1, 2007
A federal jury in Baltimore awarded nearly $11 million in damages yesterday to the family of a Marine from Maryland whose funeral was disrupted by members of a Kansas-based fundamentalist church.
One of the defendants said the civil award was the first against the church, whose members have stirred anger across the nation by picketing at funerals for service members killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, often carrying placards bearing virulent anti-gay slogans. The church maintains that God is punishing the United States, killing and maiming troops, because the country tolerates homosexuality.
Fred Phelps, pastor of the Topeka-based Westboro Baptist Church, scoffed at the jury and the award.
"It was a bunch of silly heads passing judgment on God," he said. "I don't believe anyone in the courtroom knows what the First Amendment is. Religious views are expressly protected by the First Amendment. You can't prosecute a preacher in civil law or in criminal law for what he preaches."
Phelps said the church would appeal, and he predicted that a higher court would overturn the award "in five minutes."
In the lawsuit, the family of Lance Cpl. Matthew A. Snyder argued that it had suffered invasion of privacy and infliction of emotional distress.
"The fact of the matter is, a funeral's private," said one of their attorneys, Sean Summers. "There was no public concern when [church members] showed up with a 'God Hates You' sign."
Messages left for Snyder's parents at their home were not immediately returned.
The jury ordered the pastor and two other church members -- his daughters, Shirley L. Phelps-Roper and Rebekah L. Phelps-Davis -- to pay $8 million in punitive damages and $2.9 million in compensatory damages. Snyder, of Westminster, died in a vehicle accident March 3, 2006, in Anbar province.
Members of the church protested at Snyder's funeral, displaying signs, including one that read, "Thank God for Dead Soldiers."
The church reportedly has fewer than 100 members, and it is far from clear whether the award will be collected. After the jury awarded the smaller compensatory damages, U.S. District Judge Richard Bennett noted that the size of that award "far exceeds the net worth of the defendants," the Associated Press reported.
In his closing arguments during the punitive damages phase, plaintiffs' attorney Craig Trebilcock described church members as bullies who "seek out those among us who are at the weakest point in our lives," the news agency reported.
"That's why they've gotten away with it until this point," the attorney said, adding that grieving families were too weak to fight back "until this man."
As a result of the pickets, several state legislatures have passed bills restricting protests at funerals or tightening existing limits, and lawmakers in more than a dozen other states are considering such measures, the Associated Press said.
Shirley Phelps-Roper said the verdict made her 50th birthday yesterday a happier one. She said the verdict would help the church, many of whose members are from the Phelps family, get its message out.
"We're making new signs: 'Thank God for $10.9 million.' Listen to that amount. It's so laughable," she said. "It was all I could do not to laugh. You guys think you can change God?"