Suit OK'd against anti-gay group

Judge cuts scope of trial about protest at Marine's funeral

October 16, 2007|By Matthew Dolan | Matthew Dolan,SUN REPORTER

The father claimed protesters destroyed his only chance to bury in peace the son he lost in Iraq. The picketers who carried signs with such messages as "Thank God for dead soldiers" countered they were only trying to oppose gays in the military.

After the two sides presented legal arguments in a Baltimore courtroom yesterday, a federal judge offered a split decision. He ruled that a more limited lawsuit brought by Albert Snyder, the father of the slain Marine whose funeral was targeted by the Kansas-based anti-gay group, can proceed to trial next week.

At times incensed over what he described as long-winded theological speeches given by a member of Westboro Baptist Church, U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett nonetheless dismissed two of the five counts against the church and three of its leaders, saying in part that their statements, no matter how incendiary, amounted to protected speech.

Comments posted on the church's Web site that Snyder raised his son "for the devil" and taught his son how to "defy his Creator, to divorce and to commit adultery" did not defame the father because it was "not the kind of information that a reasonable person is going to assume was presented to be considered fact," Bennett said.

In granting part of the defendants' motion for summary judgment, Bennett found church members did not defame Lance Cpl. Matthew A. Snyder or his family by implying that he was gay or raised by adulterers because his parents divorced. Nor did the church members invade the family's privacy, the judge ruled, because their anti-gay and anti-divorce accusations were based on a general expression of the church members' fundamentalist beliefs.

At the civil trial set to begin Monday in federal court, the jury will be able to consider whether Westboro Baptist Church is liable for an intentional infliction of emotional distress based on the message from its members' signs, Bennett said. The judge also will allow jurors to decide whether the Snyder family's expectation of privacy at Matthew Snyder's funeral was violated by the church members' protest outside St. John Roman Catholic Church in Westminster.

The complaint filed in June 2006 - the first individual lawsuit brought against the Kansas organization for its protests at these ceremonies - does not seek a specific amount of damages. The trial is expected to last two weeks.

In Iraq for only a month, 20-year-old Matthew Snyder died in March 2006 in a vehicle accident in Anbar province. The 2003 Westminster High School graduate served with the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, based at Twentynine Palms, Calif.

Albert Snyder filed the suit because he wanted to deter a group that has staged similar demonstrations more than 30,000 times around the nation - including hundreds of times at funerals - according to his attorneys.

"Why are they doing this to me?" Snyder lamented at the time, according to his attorney Sean E. Summers.

One of the defendants, Shirley Phelps-Roper, is an attorney and church member whose father, Fred Phelps, helped establish Westboro in 1955. Representing herself in court yesterday, she insisted church members did not target the Snyder family personally.

"This is a religious opinion ... that was based on the words of the Lord Jesus Christ," she told the judge during the four-hour hearing.

The church's protests have prompted 22 states to enact or propose laws to limit the rights of protesters at funerals. Last year, a Maryland bill was signed into law that prohibits people from picketing within 100 feet of a funeral, memorial, burial or procession.

Westboro Baptist - which has about 75 members, the vast majority of whom are relatives - protests at funerals using anti-gay slurs but without regard to the presumed sexual orientation of the soldier, church members have said.

Seven people - three adults and four children - marched on public city property outside Snyder's funeral March 10, 2006, at St. John Church, waving placards expressing their belief that the military's combat losses is a direct result of immoral behavior, including homosexuality, among its ranks.

Members claimed they were on public land at least 1,000 feet from the church. They cited depositions that Albert Snyder said he did not even see their messages on the day of the funeral. Attorneys for the Marine's father have argued he heard about the nature of the protest on the television news later and was traumatized by the experience.

First Amendment experts have said these types of lawsuits often founder because even the most hateful speech is usually protected.

But Bennett said yesterday that Matthew Snyder was a courageous Marine who was not a public figure and so a jury would need to decide whether his family was harmed by the words protesters used at his funeral.

Members of the jury, Bennett said, will need to decide whether the Westboro members were simply protesting a war or "celebrating the death of a soldier" in an extreme and outrageous way that entitles Snyder to compensation.

"The signs did not say `Get out of Iraq,'" the judge added.

matthew.dolan@baltsun.com

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