Westboro Baptist Church wins Supreme Court case for right to protest military funerals

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.
Compiled by Ian Saleh
Washington Post Staff
Thursday, March 3, 2011; 4:32 PM

The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Westboro Baptist Church on Wednesday. As Robert Barnes reported:

The First Amendment protects a fringe church's anti-gay protests at military funerals, a nearly unanimous Supreme Court ruled Wednesday in a powerful opinion that spoke to the nation's tolerance for even hateful public speech.

The court's most liberal and most conservative justices joined in a decision likely to define the term. It writes a new chapter in the court's findings that freedom of speech is so central to the nation that it protects cruel and unpopular protests - even, in this case, at the moment of a family's most profound grief.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote that Westboro Baptist Church's picketing at fallen soldiers' funerals "is certainly hurtful and its contribution to public discourse may be negligible." But he said the reaction may not be "punishing the speaker."

Discussion: A rare look into Westboro Baptist Church

The case dealt with the willingness of Americans to tolerate even hateful speech. As Peyton Craighill explained:

A poll last summer from the AP, GfK and the National Constitution Center found that by a very large margin people believe that free speech rights should be protected "even if they take positions that seem deeply offensive to most people." Fully 70 percent sided with unfettered free speech rights and only 28 percent said that people should have the right to say what they believe, except when those statements might be deeply offensive.

The case involves a tiny church that has made a practice of demonstrating at funerals of U.S. soldiers killed in action, reasoning that military deaths are God's retribution for the expanding acceptance of homosexuality.

Their demonstrations have featured signs that read "Thank God for Dead Soldiers," and "God Hates Fags." It might be a stretch to find many people who would agree with this line of reasoning or the appropriateness of such a venue for spreading their word. But a nearly unanimous Supreme Court ruled that such demonstrations are protected under the U.S. Constitution.

Justice Samuel Alito was the only dissenting judge in the 8-1 ruling. As Robert Barnes reported:

Supreme Court Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.'s muscular dissent that members of the Westboro Baptist Church "brutally attacked" a fallen Marine and his family by protesting at his funeral marked the second time in a year Alito has stood alone in a First Amendment case.

Eight justices of the Supreme Court on Wednesday said that no matter how hurtful the speech employed by members of the Westboro Baptist Church, the First Amendment protected them from having to pay damages to the grieving father they targeted.

Alito said they were all wrong.

Alito's condemnatory dissent said the Constitution's guarantee of free speech did not allow members of the fringe church to protest the funeral of Albert Snyder's fallen Marine son Matthew and "brutalize" the family with their lewd and cruel messages.

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