Survivors of soldiers thankful for verdict

Families find justice in damage award against Kan. church

November 02, 2007|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,Sun reporter

When Marcy Gorsline learned that members of Westboro Baptist Church were going to picket the church where the funeral for her son, Caleb Lufkin, was to be held, she was outraged. She wanted the 24-year-old's service to be peaceful, and she worried that the fundamentalist Christians would bring chaos.

"I just remember thinking, `How insulting. How dare they?'" said Gorsline, whose son, a soldier in the Army, was buried June 6, 2006, in Galesburg, Ill. He had died two weeks earlier of injuries after a roadside bomb tore through his military vehicle in Iraq.

Gorsline recalled her son's funeral - and the unwelcome presence of the Westboro group - less than 24 hours after a federal jury in Baltimore awarded nearly $11 million in damages to the father of a Marine whose funeral in Westminster was also disrupted by the group.

The Illinois mother said she was heartened by the verdict and hoped it would send a strong message of rebuke to the small but relentless congregation. "They have taken the liberty that our country has given them, and they have totally abused it," said Gorsline, 50, of Knoxville, Ill., in a telephone interview. "I think they are pathetic people."

Her sentiments were echoed by military families across the nation who have had a son's or daughter's memorial services picketed by the Westboro Baptist Church, whose members believe that soldiers' deaths are God's way of punishing the United States for tolerating homosexuality.

"I am thankful for this decision," said Charles T. Jones. His son, Kentucky Army National Guardsman Charles J. Jones, was killed in Iraq on Sept. 20, 2006, and the funeral 10 days later was the focus of one of the church's rallies.

"But I don't know that vindication is the right word," Jones said. "God will take care of that someday. But I feel good about it."

Still, Jones and others said they doubt the jury decision will keep the Kansas church from spreading its message.

Fred W. Phelps Sr., the head of the church, has vowed to appeal the decision, and his group's Web site showed a list of proposed funeral visits - most of them in Kansas - yesterday.

"I can't make any sense of their message or their thinking, so I wouldn't expect them to think logically on this either," said John E. Bass, father of David A. Bass, 20, of Nashville, Tenn., a Marine corporal who was killed April 2, 2006, in Iraq. "Fred Phelps is a deeply disturbed individual who seems to need to hate people. He will pick someone or something else if not this."

John Bass said his son died about a month after Matthew Snyder, whose father, Albert Snyder, sued the Westboro church in federal court in Maryland after members picketed Matthew's funeral. John Bass said his son and Matthew Snyder were in the same Marine unit but were not friends.

Still, John Bass said he has thought of Albert Snyder recently. He said that while he chose to ignore the Westboro church members who picketed his son David's memorial service, he understands Snyder's need to seek solace in a court of law.

"I knew they were coming and, truthfully, I said, `So what?'" said Bass, recalling his son's April 2006 memorial service. "I had a lot more things to think about than them. They didn't merit my attention. That's my own personal reaction. ... But I also respect Mr. Snyder's reaction. He is doing what he needs to do. It's a very personal thing, how you respond to the death of your son."

Jones, the father from Kentucky, said he also didn't give much thought to the Westboro group when its members showed up at his son's funeral. Local officials knew the church members were coming, and they brought in firetrucks, ambulances and other vehicles to block the funeral home from a view of the protesters and their confrontational placards.

He said his military training - he is commander of the 149th Brigade Combat Team of the Kentucky National Guard, his son's unit - has taught him to defend the Constitution no matter what.

"Having spent 30 years in the military, I am sworn to uphold the Constitution," Jones said. "To me [the Westboro rally] was a testament to what my son and I had been doing - it enabled them to have the freedom to do that."

However, as the father of a slain soldier, he said he was disturbed by the church's antics. Father and son were serving in Iraq together when the son, who was 29, was killed.

"We had people and friends ask us about our son, about his sexual orientation," Jones said in a telephone interview. "It was defamation of his character. I don't know what kind of God they worship, but I think they are going to stand in front of him one day, and he is going to say, `What were you thinking?'"

Members of the Patriot Guard Riders, a group of motorcycle enthusiasts that has been called upon by some families to serve as human shields between funeral participants and the Westboro group, said they will continue to assist military families - especially those who get visits from members of Phelps' flock.

"We'll continue to be there for the families and for the fallen soldiers," said George E. Martin Sr., a 57-year-old Aberdeen resident who retired from the Army after 23 years of service and is a local member of the Patriot Guard. "We will be there regardless."

Martin, who has attended three funerals that were picketed by the Westboro Baptist Church, said he hoped the jury decision will ease families' anguish. He said that when he first saw members of the church at a funeral, he felt a "pain in the pit of my stomach."

He said: "Knowing that the church has been slapped for this and publicly chastised for its actions, that is some sort of vindication for all of the families."

lynn.anderson@baltsun.com

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