A federal appeals court ruled Thursday that a fundamentalist Kansas church's protest outside the funeral of a Westminster Marine killed in Iraq is protected speech and did not violate the privacy of the service member's family, reversing a lower court's $5 million award.
The ruling from the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., held that the signs and writings of the Westboro Baptist Church, which included anti-gay and anti-military messages, are protected by the First Amendment. The Topeka-based congregation has protested at military funerals across the country
"Notwithstanding the distasteful and repugnant nature of the words being challenged in these proceedings, we are constrained to conclude that the defendants' signs and [what it has on its Web sites] are constitutionally protected," Circuit Court Judge Robert B. King wrote in the majority opinion.
Margie Jean Phelps, an attorney for Westboro and the daughter of the church's leader, said "it was an absolute shame to have a little church put on trial because of your religious beliefs."
"Everyone knows that we didn't disrupt a funeral," said Phelps, daughter of the Rev. Fred W. Phelps Sr. "Our speech, on our signs and our Web sites, is public speech. It's not on private matters. It's on public issues, so it's protected."
Sean E. Summers, an attorney for Albert Snyder, of York, Pa., the dead Marine's father, said he will appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.
"The most troubling fact is that it essentially leaves grieving families helpless," said Summers. "There are a lot people sending their kids over to war, and unfortunately, they're not all coming back. You would think that at least we could offer them dignity and respect."
Summers said that Albert Snyder would not comment on the decision. At trial, Snyder testified, "I had one chance to bury my son, and they took the dignity away from it."
Fred Phelps, two other adults and four children picketed the March 10, 2006, funeral of Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, holding signs that said, "Thank God for dead soldiers," and wrote on the church's Web site that Snyder's parents "taught Matthew to defy his creator."
Matthew Snyder, a 2003 graduate of Westminster High School, was 20 years old and had been in the war zone for less than a month when he was killed in a vehicle accident in Anbar province.
Westboro church members believe soldiers are being killed in Iraq and Afghanistan as punishment for what they say is the nation's tolerance of homosexuality. The church has about 75 members, most of whom are related to Phelps.
Albert Snyder sued Fred Phelps and two of his daughters, Rebecca Phelps-Davis and Shirley Phelps-Roper, for invasion of privacy and emotional distress.
In October 2007, a federal jury in Baltimore awarded the father nearly $11 million, ruling that the family's privacy had been invaded. In February 2008, a federal judge reduced the damages from $10.9 million to $5 million, citing constitutional concerns of appropriateness.
"The amount was set with a goal, and the goal was to silence us," said Margie Jean Phelps. "In this country, you don't get to claim damage over words you don't agree with. ... Because we've trained a nation of crybabies doesn't mean we change the law."