Military funeral picketers take case to Supreme Court

In a case testing the limits of free speech, the Supreme Court is considering whether a Kansas-based church has the right to protest homosexuality at the funerals of slain U.S. service members.

Albert Snyder of Maryland sued members of the Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church, claiming emotional distress and invasion of privacy after parishioners turned up at his son's funeral with signs that said “Thank God for IEDs” and “You're Going to Hell.”

Snyder's son, Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, was killed in Iraq in 2006. The Westboro church says war is God's vengeance for homosexuality.

Snyder told CNN that his son was not gay and he was “shocked” by the church group's protest. He sued in 2007 and won an $11 million verdict against pastor Fred Phelps' church, which a judge later reduced to $5 million.

An appeals court later vacated that award, determining the church protest was protected by the First Amendment.

Sean Summers, lawyer for Snyder, called the Westboro church an “embarrassment” to the state of Kansas, but said the case goes beyond the First Amendment protection of free speech.

“I hope they realize this is not just a case about speech, it's a case about harassment — targeted harassment at a person's funeral,” Summers said outside of the Supreme Court.

Evidence in the case showed church members targeted Snyder on their Web site, claiming he raised his son to “serve the devil,” among other messages.

Margie Phelps, daughter of the church pastor and lawyer for Westboro, said “hurt feelings” don't trump free-speech guarantees.

“When you have a private funeral we will not be there,” Phelps said. “When you have a public funeral and broadcast to the nation that that dead soldier is a hero and God is blessing America, we will be there and tell you God is cursing America.”

Phelps added that God curses America by sending troops home in body bags, and “if you want that to stop, stop sinning.”

The Westboro church turned up earlier this week at the funeral of Lt. Brendan Looney of Silver Spring, a Navy SEAL who was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Looney, a former DeMatha Catholic High School lacrosse player, was killed serving in Afghanistan.

The anti-gay protesters carried signs saying “America is Doomed” and “Don't Worship the Dead.” Their singing and chanting were drowned out by counterdemonstrators on motorcycles.

At the White House, press secretary Robert Gibbs said President Obama “believes strongly that we ought to protect the well-being and peace of mind” of the families of troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The first high-profile case of their term sparked lengthy questioning from the justices, notably over how far the protesters were from the Snyder funeral, and whether the church's Web site messages about the Snyder family are relevant to the case.

Legal issues at stake include how far cemeteries and other facilities can go in imposing protest-free zones. Some 48 states joined the case on behalf of the Snyder family.

jmason@washingtonexaminer.com

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