Supreme Court rules: First Amendment Right protects Westboro

Washington- The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that in the case of Snyder v. Phelps, that the First Amendment protects a group of church members who form a fundamental unit to perform anti-gay protests outside military funerals, despite the grief they cause the soldiers families.

The court voted 8-1 in favor of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan, which upheld the decision of an appeals court ruling that threw out a $5 million judgment to the father of a dead Marine who decided to sue church members after they picketed his son’s funeral.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the opinion for the court; Justice Samuel Alito dissented.

Roberts stated that the First Amendment shields the funeral protesters, adding that they had obeyed police directions and had been 1,000 feet away from the church during the funeral.

“Speech is powerful. It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and-as it did here-inflict great pain. On the facts before us, we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker,” Roberts said.  Roberts made note that the U.S. has chosen “a different course”, which is to protect even hurtful speech on public issues in order to ensure that we do not stifle public debate.

Alito disagreed, “Our profound national commitment to free and open debate is not a license for the vicious verbal assault that occurred in this case,” he said.

Matthew Snyder died in 2006 in Iraq, and his body was returned to the United States for burial. Outside the Westminster, Md., church where Snyder’s funeral was to be held, members of the Westboro Baptist Church-who have picketed military funerals for almost 20 years- decided to protest.

Members of the church arrived carrying usual signs, which included “You’re Going to Hell,” “God Hates the USA/Thank God for 9/11,” and one that included a slur against gay men.

The Rev. of the Baptist Church, Fred Phelps, and his family members make up most of the Westboro Baptist Church, and have targeted many different military funerals in their conquest to draw attention to their view that U.S. deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq are God’s punishment for the nation’s tolerance of homosexuality.

The protesters brought on media coverage, heavy police presence to maintain order, and counter-demonstrators to Snyder’s funeral, which led to an altering of the route of the funeral procession.

Weeks later, Albert Snyder surfed the Internet, when he came upon a poem on the church’s website. The poem attacked Matthew’s parents for the way they had brought up their son.

After seeing the poem, Snyder filed a lawsuit filed a lawsuit accusing the Phelpses of intentionally inflicting emotional distress. He won $11 million at trial, later reduced by a judge to $5 million.

In Richmon, Va., the federal appeals court threw out the verdict and said the Constitution protected the church members from liability.

Almost 42 senators and veterans groups sided with Snyder, and asked the court to shield funerals from the Phelps family’s protests.

Many groups have distanced themselves from the overall message presented by the church, however, many media organizations and other groups, urged the court to side with the Phelps family because of concerns that a victory for Snyder could erode speech rights.