If church doesn't pay, father still wins

November 02, 2007|By JEAN MARBELLA

Maybe Albert Snyder will never see a dime of the $10.9 million that a federal jury in Baltimore awarded him against a Kansas church that picketed the funeral of his son, Matt, a Marine killed in Iraq, as part of its virulent, anti-gay crusade.

Maybe the judgment will be overturned on appeal, maybe the church and its members will manage to hide their assets and avoid paying any damages as other defendants in civil cases have done (see: Simpson, O.J., $33.5 million judgment against).

But whether Snyder ever pockets any money, he still wins.

After years in which a group of people, hiding under the banners of free speech and religious freedom and behaving so reprehensibly that many ignored them rather than give them the publicity they crave, Snyder pushed back.

And for that, he deserves our thanks - and any of that $10.9 million he manages to pinch out of a church whose central doctrine is that the country's tolerance of gays is why troops are dying in Iraq, the World Trade Center was bombed, and even five Amish girls were killed in Nickel Mines, Pa.

Even typing those words seems to give them a modicum of legitimacy - which is vastly more than they deserve and which is why the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., has always posed a dilemma to the media. I used to work at a newspaper in Kansas where we carefully considered any story about the church and its activities to make sure we weren't just playing into the hands of its members and giving their message wider exposure.

In any event, no article, bound as newspapers are by standards of decency, can truly capture the sewage-level depth of the group's language. It's almost laughable after a while to listen to these people - for a church that shudders over the supposed evil of homosexual sex, the members sure know a lot about it and love to describe it, endlessly and lasciviously.

But to remain silent on them is no solution either - not to challenge them somehow makes you complicit in allowing their words to hang out there, hovering over the public square like a toxic cloud.

In their hometown, the state's capital, officials and other residents cycled through various ways of dealing with the church and its abusive, flame-throwing ways, said Rick Musser, a University of Kansas journalism professor who wrote a chapter about Westboro in a 1999 book, Culture Wars & Local Politics. They tried ignoring them, hoping they'd wither away without the oxygen of attention; they tried enacting legislation to curb their protests; they tried suing them for defamation.

All of which the church just lapped up. With almost all of founder Fred Phelps' 13 children having law degrees -Phelps himself is a disbarred attorney - they could take on all comers at little expense.

"They don't accrue legal costs," Musser said. "They know how to string things out."

Eventually, they lost much of the power to shock in Topeka, Musser said. Their fliers, their faxes, their name-calling became routine around town, he said, so "they took their show on the road."

"They've always looked for ways to heighten their profile," he said.

Hitting on the tactic of picketing the funerals of troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan was pretty inspired, in an evil way. If there's any sacred symbol left in these irreverent times, it's the troops. Suddenly, more people were paying attention to this fringe church, which is unaffiliated with any mainstream religious group and whose members largely are Phelps' extended family. (Three of his children, however, have renounced him and are estranged from the family.)

After winning the multimillion-dollar verdict Wednesday, Snyder said he didn't mind giving the group more exposure by suing it. "I don't blame anybody who hasn't [sued the church]," he said. "It's hard enough to bury a child."

"It was a rough decision, but I knew if I didn't do something, I wouldn't be able to live with myself," Snyder added.

C. Christopher Brown, a civil litigator and professor emeritus at the University of Maryland Law School, said it can be difficult but not impossible to collect damages. He won damages for a client against a child abuser three years ago and is still trying to collect; but in another case, it took a mere couple of months.

Sometimes, he said, "it's a paper victory."

"You have piece of paper that says you've been awarded $11 million," Brown said. "You still have to hunt it down. You can spend a lot of money hunting it down."

Unfortunately, while lawyers can seek to garnish wages and seize bank accounts, some assets - such as pensions or, in some states, a home - are protected, Brown said. It's not like a person's credit card can be automatically frozen and prevented from, say, using it to buy plane fare to the next funeral to be picketed.

"Let's say Joe Parishioner gives $1,000 to the church," he said. "You have to catch it while the church still has it."

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