Funeral protest case opens

Member of anti-gay church denies father of soldier could see rally

October 24, 2007|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,Sun reporter

A member of a Kansas-based anti-gay church told a federal jury yesterday that America's acceptance of homosexuality spurred her and fellow parishioners to picket a Westminster Marine's funeral, one of the demonstrations by the group that have become so frequent that 22 states have enacted or proposed laws limiting the rights of protesters at memorial services.

Representing herself in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, Shirley Phelps-Roper, a nonpracticing attorney, told jurors that she and her fellow protesters remained about 1,000 feet away from the funeral of Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder in March 2006 and never did anything to disrupt the service.

But a lawyer for Albert Snyder, the father of the Marine, said during his opening statement that his client has suffered worsened depression and health complications because of the protesters' actions. Snyder is seeking an unspecified amount from Westboro Baptist Church in the civil case.

Phelps-Roper is a member of Westboro Baptist, a 75-person congregation made up mostly of members of the same family in Topeka, Kan., and known for protesting at military funerals. Members of the church also picketed outside several Baltimore religious services last weekend.

Snyder's case is the first individual lawsuit against Westboro Baptist and its members. Phelps-Roper told jurors that her congregation holds daily protests at funerals, political rallies and other public forums across the country, making the trips at their own expense.

Last year, after Matthew Snyder's funeral, the Maryland General Assembly passed a law that prohibits people from picketing within 100 feet of a funeral, memorial, burial or procession.

Phelps-Roper told the nine-person jury that the church came to Westminster to spread its message of repentance, arguing that American troops are dying in Iraq because the country is allowing homosexuals in the military.

She said that Albert Snyder never saw the picketers on his way to his son's funeral. Phelps-Roper said the protesters - who included her sister, Rebekah Phelps-Davis, her father and some of her children - congregated 1,000 feet away from the funeral and down a hill.

Phelps-Roper's father, Fred Phelps, also a co-defendant, helped establish Westboro Baptist Church in the 1950s.

"We stood exactly where police asked us to stand," she said. "We were out of sight and sound. Our presence was completely blocked."

Jurors will decide whether Westboro Baptist is liable for an intentional infliction of emotional distress based on the message from its members' signs and whether the family's expectation of privacy at Matthew Snyder's funeral at St. John Roman Catholic Church was violated.

Last week, U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett dismissed two of five counts against the church and three of its leaders, saying in part that their statements amounted to protected speech. Bennett is presiding over the case.

Rebekah Phelps-Davis told jurors that church members carry signs with provocative language to catch people's attention.

Seven people - three adults and four children - marched on public city property outside Snyder's funeral waving fluorescent placards, including one that read "Thank God for dead soldiers."

"When the war started and the soldiers started dying, we saw that the funerals were turned into public spectacles," Phelps-Davis said. "We concluded that we need to go because this nation is proud of its sin."

Another lawyer for the defense, Jonathan Katz, also gave a 30-minute opening statement.

Sean E. Summers, Snyder's attorney, told jurors that his client was aware of the protest as he headed to the funeral.

"The whole time he's thinking, `I can't believe this is happening,'" Summers said.

He said Snyder has suffered complications from diabetes since the protests. Summers said he will call expert doctors and a psychologist who have treated Snyder.

He said the funeral was a private service and should have been treated as such.

"The defendants recognized that their presence would not be welcome," Summers said. "We will ask if the defendants are sorry for what they did, and each and every one of them will say no. The defendants kicked him while he was down at his lowest point."

Snyder, 20, died in a vehicle accident in Anbar province. A 2003 Westminster High School graduate, Snyder had been in Iraq less than a month and served with the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force based at Twentynine Palms, Calif.

The trial is expected to conclude Nov. 1.

brent.jones@baltsun.com

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