Church's protests at military funerals a free-speech test for Supreme Court
Thursday, September 30, 2010; 7:51 PM
TOPEKA, KAN. - A filmmaker several years ago tracked Shirley Phelps-Roper and her family members as they went about praising God for killing U.S. soldiers and picketing their funerals - their way of putting the nation on notice about the Almighty's wrath.
He called the documentary "The Most Hated Family in America," and Phelps-Roper had only one real regret.
"If he had just called it, 'The Most Hated Family in the World,'" she said. In the last hours of the last days, she explained, Jesus said his chosen will be "hated by all men."
Phelps-Roper, along with her father, the Rev. Fred W. Phelps, and other family members who make up Westboro Baptist Church, may yet get their wish.
The family's inflammatory picketing - "Thank God for dead soldiers" is a favorite sign - has prompted more than 40 state legislatures and Congress to pass laws. Next week, the Supreme Court takes up the battle over how the Phelpses spread their message: that the nation's tolerance of homosexuality has drawn God's condemnation.
It creates an only-in-America quandary: whether the freedom of speech is so powerfully woven in the nation's fabric that it protects one family's right to vile and hurtful protest at the very moment of another family's most profound grief.
Albert Snyder, whose son Matthew's 2006 funeral in a little town in northern Maryland is at the center of the case, says that right cannot possibly exist.
"It is an insult to every American who has died for the freedom of speech," Snyder said in a recent interview. "No one in the history of the nation has ever protested like this. Don't tell me that my son died for that."
Snyder's was one of about 200 families who say the funerals of their loved ones were disrupted by Westboro's protests. A Baltimore jury ruled that Westboro had to pay Snyder $10 million for invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
The judge cut the amount in half, and then a unanimous three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Richmond overturned the judgment.
The judges called the Phelps protest "distasteful and repugnant" but protected by the Constitution as "imaginative and hyperbolic rhetoric."
Margie J. Phelps, another daughter and a lawyer who will argue the church's side before the Supreme Court, called the case "the ultimate litmus test" for America's belief in free speech.