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The fringes of freedom

Retired Maj. Gen. Bill Branson - and protesters - attend a service for Staff Sgt. James Ide, who was killed in Afghanistan.
Retired Maj. Gen. Bill Branson - and protesters - attend a service for Staff Sgt. James Ide, who was killed in Afghanistan. (Michael S. Williamson)

"It has survived pornography. It survived burning flags. It survived every kind of filth on the Internet. It survived what people thought was seditious talk," she said recently, on a break between a protest at a Catholic church and before worship service at Westboro. "The question our case presents is: Can it survive a few modest words from a little church - less than 70 souls, in the middle of the nation - about your sins?"

But Snyder's attorney, Sean Summers, said the appeals court was wrong to consider only the First Amendment rights of the church members.

"The Phelpses' freedom of speech should have ended where it conflicted with Mr. Snyder's freedom to participate in his son's funeral, which was intended to be a solemn religious gathering," Summers told the court in his brief.

Snyder put it another way.

"I had one chance to bury my son in peace," he said, "and they took it away from me."

The 2006 protest

On March 10, 2006, seven members of the Phelps family picketed 20-year-old Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder's funeral at St. John's Catholic Church in the town of Westminster. Snyder was not gay; the Phelpses say their message is not about the individual soldier, but the nation.

More than a thousand people turned out, both to support the Snyders and protest Westboro. The funeral procession was rerouted so as not to pass the Phelpses. The parochial school across the street papered over its windows to shield students from signs such as "Semper Fags" and an illustration of two stick figures engaging in anal sex. The media were out in force. A SWAT team was called.

"They turned my son's funeral into a circus," Snyder said.

Fred Phelps asked: "If we're saying God is mad at the country and he's killing kids on account of it, then what's more appropriate as a forum to preach than at the funeral of one of these dead soldiers that God has just killed?"

Phelps, who once practiced law but now is disbarred, is one of 16 in the extended family who have law degrees.

The family obeyed law enforcement directives and all laws.

"We don't believe in that civil disobedience stuff," Margie Phelps said. "It's not scriptural, so we don't do it."

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