Westboro church's message of hate crosses the free-speech line

By Courtland Milloy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 16, 2010; 10:18 PM

When the family of Marine Lance Cpl. Terry E. Honeycutt Jr. arrived for his funeral at a church in Charles County on Monday, thousands of flag-waving supporters were there to greet them. Hopefully, the outpouring made the Honeycutts feel better after driving past those six hateful protesters who came from the Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas to harass them.

God forbid that I should have to bury a child. But if I did, and one of those despicable holy rollers showed up waving a sign in my face, talking about "God killed your child as revenge against gays," there might well be another funeral. Some things are simply intolerable.

"I think it's horrible that anyone would try to disrespect the family of a man who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country," said Scott Mallary, who was holding one end of a 12-foot-long banner expressing gratitude for Honeycutt's service.

Mallary, like most of those I spoke with, was more concerned with supporting the Honeycutt family than mounting some counterprotest. But I wasn't the only one who was more than a little irritated with that Westboro clan.

The church, in Topeka, is led by a publicity-seeking homophobe, Fred J. Phelps. He knows that disrupting military funerals and the funerals of gays will probably make news.

To the credit of Charles officials, the protesters were kept about a quarter of a mile from the memorial service, which was held at the New Life Wesleyan Church in La Plata.

But the wing nuts still got to stand alongside the road, waving their insulting signs at the funeral procession.

Honeycutt, 19, was a graduate of North Point High School in Waldorf. He was a recipient of the National Defense Service Medal, the Afghanistan Campaign Medal and Global War on Terrorism Service Medal. He died Oct. 27 of wounds sustained while fighting in Afghanistan. After the services, he was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Residents throughout Southern Maryland were alerted by e-mail and message groups that Westboro members were planning to disrupt the Honeycutt funeral. Thousands responded.

"They picked the wrong county this time," said Cathy Gilbert, who, along with hundreds of others, wore T-shirts that read, "Thank You T.J."

The supporters also included a group of motorcyclists, the Patriot Riders, volunteers who provide protection to military families at funerals if invited.

Bravo to all of those who showed up. Nevertheless: a motorcycle club to shield military families from insults while attending a funeral? Heaven help us.

Back in 2006, the Westboro group turned the funeral of Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder of Westminster into a living hell for his father.

"I had one chance to bury my son, and they took the dignity away from it," Albert Snyder told a jury in Baltimore, which agreed and awarded him $10 million after he sued the church.

But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Richmond threw out the verdict and award. Then, last month, the Supreme Court took up Snyder's claim. In deciding the case, the justices are said to be seeking a balance between a group's free speech rights with the rights of private individuals to be protected from unwanted demonstrations and defamatory remarks.

Somehow, the families must be given relief. The decision by the three-judge court of appeals only added insult to injury.

"Notwithstanding the distasteful and repugnant nature of the words being challenged in these proceedings, we are constrained to conclude that the defendants' signs . . . are constitutionally protected," the court said, adding that the signs contained "imaginative and hyperbolic rhetoric intended to spark debate about issues with which the defendants are concerned."

So a bunch of nitwits show up at the funeral of a youngster who has just been killed in a war, waving signs like "God Hates the USA/Thank God for 9/11," "Semper Fi Fags" and "Thank God for Dead Soldiers" - and the court refers to their actions as imaginative?

Then imagine this: Maybe the question is not whether the repugnant nature of Westboro church members is protected by the First Amendment. Maybe the question is: How much of this can a grieving parent be expected to take?

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