Westboro Baptist Church, Phelps family speak out about funeral-protest case

The Supreme Court takes up the battle over how the Westboro Baptist Church spreads their message that the nation's tolerance of homosexuality has drawn God's condemnation.
By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 6, 2010; 4:47 PM

Dueling family members in a Supreme Court case considering the right of a Kansas church to protest at funerals of U.S. service members asserted confidence outside the courthouse Wednesday that their arguments would prevail.

The comments came during a news conference after a hearing on Snyder v. Phelps. The case pits the Snyder family against the Phelpses of Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, whose church members protested at the funeral of Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, who was killed in Iraq in 2006. The church - whose members have been traveling the country to demonstrate at the funerals of military service members - targeted the Snyder family because of its membership in the Catholic Church and because the father, Albert Snyder, had divorced his wife.

At the news conference, Margie Phelps, lawyer for the Phelps family and daughter of church founder Fred W. Phelps, spoke loudly into microphones, saying, "There's no line that can be drawn here without shutting down speech." She said that Snyder's newspaper obituary, which announced his death and funeral location, immediately turned the family into public figures and thus fair game for funeral picketing. Church members, Phelps said, are careful to protest far from the actual funeral ceremony.

During their turn at the microphones, Albert Snyder and his attorney asserted that the Snyders were not public figures worthy of intrusive attacks. Snyder, wearing a button that said "My Hero" with his son's photograph, said the church's protests outside his son's funeral were something "no family should have to live through." The church's harassment "went beyond all possible bounds of basic human decency, that it could be regarded as utterly intolerable in a civilized nation. All we wanted to do was bury Matthew with dignity and respect."

His attorney, Sean E. Summers, said Wednesday's hearing had a "lot of tough questions both ways." But he added that in the debate between freedom of speech and privacy rights, "the slippery slope goes both ways."

Summers argued that if the court rules in the church's favor, similar protests could occur at weddings, and that because his client was briefly interviewed about his son's death in a local newspaper did not mean his client was a public figure.

"In small-town U.S.A., any time there's a death of a child, the local newspaper reports it. Because Mr. Snyder gave a one-sentence quote to a local newspaper doesn't make that a public event, under any stretch of the imagination. If it does . . . every death of a child across this nation would all of a sudden become a public event. I don't think that's an appropriate state of the law."

Before the morning hearing, groups from both sides of the debate demonstrated outside the courthouse over freedom of speech and the right to privacy.

The case of Snyder v. Phelps could carry significant ramifications for some of the country's most fundamental rights of free speech and privacy, but the scene outside the court featured an unusual set of individuals preaching inflammatory messages. Members of Westboro Baptist Church were carrying placards mocking homosexuality and encouraging the deaths of more service members fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. They were surrounded by dozens of students from American and George Washington universities who were holding their own signs and debating the church members.

Just after 8 a.m., Jacob Phelps, 27, held up a sign that read "Thank God for Dead Soldiers." He was surrounded by local college students such as Alex Yudelson, 18, a George Washington freshman.

"This nation will be no more once we're gone!" said Phelps, a Target warehouse worker and grandson of Fred Phelps.

"Where did you go to college?" Yudelson asked, as he and other students laughed.

"Washburn University," Phelps said earnestly. "I actually graduated."

Moments later, Sam Garrett, 18, another GWU freshman, clad in only sneakers, tight boxer briefs and flashy white Diesel sunglasses, approached Phelps. He was carrying a sign that read, "Fred Phelps wishes he were hot like me!"

Matthew Snyder's 2006 funeral in Westminster, Md., was one of about 200 that have been disrupted by Westboro's protests. A federal jury in Baltimore ruled that the Kansas church violated the Snyders' privacy and intentionally inflicted emotional distress and that it had to pay the family $10 million; the judge later halved the award.

But the church fought back. A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Richmond overturned the Baltimore judge's ruling, which sent the case to the Supreme Court, which is expected to hear the arguments from both sides between 10 and 11 a.m.

The justices will not make a decision Wednesday, but judicial experts presented options for the possible ruling: It could offer outright protection to protesters; or the justices could deem that funerals deserve special exception and that protesters cannot rely on the First Amendment to justify harassment at a funeral.

Outside the court's steps, many of the college students expressed shock as they stared at the Westboro church members and their signs.

" 'Pray for more dead kids'?" asked Chris Habiby, 18, an AU freshman, dressed in a suit. "Are you serious?"

Habiby said he believes strongly in the First Amendment, but he said funerals should be off-limits to protesters. As he waited to gain entry to the court, a college friend, Rob Lord, who had been tussling with the church members, came over to him.

"Rob, what did you talk about with the - " Habiby asked.

"I was just asking [one of the church members] about his sign that said, 'Thank God for Breast Cancer.' He said that we should be thankful for everything God has done," said Lord, 21, a senior.

Lord said that was only part of what he had heard, adding: "Then the protester also said, 'Thank God for Hitler.' "

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