To rest in peace

October 18, 2007

Protecting the free speech rights of a church group that callously disrupts the funerals of Iraq war veterans with rants about homosexuality might be a tough call for some. But U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett struck the right balance this week in upholding that right while also allowing a lawsuit against the Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church to proceed.

Now it's up to a Maryland jury to send the message that in a civil society, parents of slain soldiers should be able to bury their sons and daughters in peace.

The lawsuit was filed by Albert Snyder of York, Pa., after members of the Westboro church staged one of their protests at the March 10, 2006, funeral of his son, Lance Cpl. Matthew A. Snyder, in Westminster. It was an unseemly stunt, with church members holding placards that read, "Thank God for dead soldiers." The group also posted inflammatory statements on its Web site that accused Mr. Snyder of raising his son "to defy his Creator, to divorce and commit adultery." The soldier's parents were divorced.

The church group sought to have the lawsuit dismissed on the grounds that its speech was protected under the Constitution. Judge Bennett ruled Monday that the group's statements didn't defame Corporal Snyder or his family, nor did the protesters violate the family's privacy because their comments against gays and divorce were a product of their religious beliefs.

But the judge let several other counts in the lawsuit remain, and a jury hearing the case next week will be asked to decide if the Westboro church intentionally inflicted emotional distress on the Snyder family and whether its protest outside the funeral violated the family's expectation of privacy.

The Snyder family's decision to sue the Kansas group, the first individual lawsuit against the protests, was courageous. This group has held hundreds of protests at funerals across the country, charging that the U.S. performance in the war was the result of immoral behavior, including homosexuality.

The church group's nonsensical attack could be dismissed as a loony rant except that its displays unfairly malign the soldiers who have died in the Iraq war and egregiously intrude on grieving families.

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