Church says funeral protests are protected

The fundamentalist church that picketed the funeral of a Marine killed in Iraq with anti-gay signs argued Wednesday that its actions were protected by the First Amendment. An attorney for the Westboro Baptist Church submitted a 75-page brief to the U.S. Supreme Court, which will hear arguments in a lawsuit against the church this fall. Albert Snyder of York, Pa., claims that the church's free-speech rights did not trump his right to peacefully assemble for his son's funeral.

The Topeka, Kan.-based church believes that U.S. military deaths are God's punishment for tolerance of homosexuality. Founder Fred Phelps and six of his relatives picketed the 2006 funeral of Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder in Westminster, Md., carrying signs that read "Thank God for Dead Soldiers" and "You're Going to Hell," among other statements.
Attorney Margie Jean Phelps, the church founder's daughter, will argue the case before the Supreme Court. She argued in her brief that Westboro did not disrupt the funeral in part because its protest was 1,000 feet away from the church, on a public street. Snyder did not see the protesters and could not read their signs during the funeral, but was aware of their presence.

"He was able to go to and leave the funeral without any slightest disruption or interference," Phelps wrote. "WBC was out of sight and sound; maintained a very reasonable distance; acted peacefully and engaged in no disruption or intrusion. ... This is the wrong case to decide whether there is a privacy interest in a funeral." Phelps also argued that the church was engaging in public speech on a matter of public concern; that the funeral was a public event; and that the church did not assert provable facts but instead expressed "hyperbolic, figurative, loose, hysterical opinion."

In 2007, a jury found against Westboro and awarded Snyder nearly $11 million as compensation for emotional distress and invasion of privacy. That award was later reduced and then overturned by a court of appeals.
The Supreme Court agreed in March to take the case, and the justices will hear arguments during the court's next term, which begins in October. Forty-eight states and the District of Columbia submitted a brief in support of Snyder. The states argued they have a compelling interest in protecting the sanctity of funerals.