Jury sees video of funeral protest

Five women and four men begin weighing lawsuit by Marine's family against church

October 31, 2007|By Matthew Dolan | Matthew Dolan,Sun reporter

The father of a young Marine killed in Iraq wept repeatedly in federal court in Baltimore yesterday as a jury watched video images of members of a Kansas church protesting the military's inclusion of homosexuals by picketing his son's Westminster funeral.

The videos provided an emotional ending to the evidence portion of the weeklong trial in U.S. District Court. Albert Snyder of York, Pa., the Marine's father, is attempting to be the first in the nation to hold members of Topeka-based Westboro Baptist Church legally liable for their shock protests at military funerals.

"The defendants kicked Al Snyder while he was down, when he was most vulnerable," Snyder's attorney Sean E. Summers told the jury during closing arguments.

Nine jurors spent about two hours yesterday afternoon deliberating before Judge Richard D. Bennett dismissed them for the day. The jury of five women and four men are set to return to court this morning to decide the fate of the invasion of privacy lawsuit.

In June 2006, Snyder sued the tight-knit fundamentalist Christian church and three of its members individually. The father argued that Westboro's "street preaching" -- song-filled demonstrations where adults and children carry colorful signs with anti-gay, anti-military and anti-Catholic exhortations -- exacerbated his pain and suffering in March 2006 while he mourned the death of his only son.

Specifically, he charged that they violated his privacy, intentionally inflicted emotional harm and engaged in a conspiracy to carry out their activities.

The church and its members maintain that they did nothing wrong. They base their legal defense on the First Amendment, arguing that their protests, no matter how insulting to some, are constitutionally protected. Their attorneys told jurors yesterday that Westboro members were expressing closely held religious beliefs about an immoral society, including the military, that has endorsed homosexuality.

Jonathan Katz, the attorney for the church and one of its founders, said that members followed state law during their protest in Westminster, standing on public property about 1,000 feet from the funeral.

"Their actions are simple and consistent," he added. "They do it because they believe God has commanded them to do it."

At the center of the case has been Lance Cpl. Matthew A. Snyder, a 2003 Westminster High School graduate who died March 3, 2006, in a vehicle accident in Anbar province. He had been in Iraq less than a month. But Snyder's personal life has never become an issue at the trial. Church members said they did not target Snyder's funeral because they believe he was gay.

Instead, they waved fire-and-brimstone placards -- "Thank God for dead soldiers" and "Fag Troops" among others -- near the funeral motorcade to bring attention to their message blaming war casualties on the larger societal acceptance of homosexuals. Church members testified that they use "unvarnished words" on their signs because the Bible teaches them to speak directly and simply.

The church's controversial protests have prompted at least 22 states to enact or propose laws to limit the rights of protesters at funerals. Only months after Matthew Snyder's death, Maryland passed a law prohibiting people from picketing within 100 feet of a funeral, memorial, burial or procession.

Albert Snyder has said he 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. Snyder is asking for unspecified monetary damages.


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