A Marine's father fights on for his son

He took case to highest court after Kan. church protested at funeral

  • Albert Snyder is fighting a court battle against Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., whose members protested homosexuality outside the funeral service for his son, Matthew, a U.S. Marine killed in Iraq.
Albert Snyder is fighting a court battle against Westboro Baptist… (Barbara Haddock Taylor,…)
April 04, 2010|By Tricia Bishop | tricia.bishop@baltsun.com

YORK, Pa. — — Albert Snyder is a soft, bear of a man - more teddy than grizzly - with thinning hair, a trim goatee and tired eyes. He has a folksy, polite manner and speaks with the gentle tone and tempo of a storyteller.

But if you mess with his family, he turns fierce. You can see the change whenever the Westboro Baptists of Topeka, Kan., are mentioned. They messed with his son in what he considers an unimaginable way.

"You don't go after one of my kids," Snyder said from his lawyer's office in York, Pa.

Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew A. Snyder, 20, was killed in a Humvee accident in Iraq on March 3, 2006. A week later, church members stood outside his funeral at St. John's Roman Catholic Church in Westminster waving signs that said "Thank God for dead soldiers" and "God hates fags" while mourners grieved inside. Later, they posted a diatribe on their Web site claiming that Matthew's divorced parents raised him "to commit adultery" and to support "satanic Catholicism."

The Westboro church members had never met Matthew, who wasn't gay, nor his family. Yet seven of them - adults and children - traveled 1,100 miles across a half-dozen states to celebrate the young Marine's death as part of their anti-gay gospel aimed at the military. They contended that the protest was directed not at Snyder but at the U.S. government and its tolerance of homosexuality and gays in the military.

Snyder sued Westboro Baptist Church and its leaders in Baltimore federal court a few months after Matthew died, contending that they invaded his privacy and intentionally inflicted emotional distress. He testified that the defendants placed a "bug" in his head so that he could no longer think of his son without thinking of them and their signs.

The trial, too, took its toll, wearing on him physically and emotionally as he relived his son's death each day.

Snyder won a multimillion-dollar jury verdict, with the judge calling Westboro's actions "outrageous" and "highly offensive," but an appeals court reversed it. The Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case during its fall term, vaulting Snyder's personal fight onto a national stage.

He appeared on ABC's "Good Morning America" last week, and taped an episode with MSNBC's Chris Matthews the week before. On Tuesday, shortly after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit ruled that Snyder would have to pay some costs of Westboro's appeals, Bill O'Reilly of Fox News pledged to pay the $16,000 bill.

Snyder's lawyers have become part-time publicity agents and celebrities. And military families across the country consider Snyder - a man who never wanted his son to be a soldier - a champion for basic human decency.

"I'm usually a very quiet person, a very private person, and this is so out of character for me," Snyder said.

The case has consumed him, as his lawyers warned him it would. It's with him when he wakes up and when he goes to sleep, and throughout the day when reporters call. It rides along the few times a year he can bear to visit Matt's grave, at a veterans cemetery in Owings Mills.

It won't go away, and he can't let it go.

"He knows what Matt went through in Iraq, and he feels like he can't back down just because this is getting tough, because Matt didn't back down," said Craig Trebilcock, one of two York lawyers representing Snyder pro bono. He calls Snyder the "bravest man" he's ever met.

"He's tougher than when we started out," Trebilcock said, "kind of like something that's been hit so many times, it's become tougher."

A few good men
Albert Snyder, 54, was born and raised in Southwest Baltimore, and brought up his own family - two girls and a boy - in Carroll County, sharing joint custody with his ex-wife after they split around 2000, when the kids were in their teens.

Daughter Sarah came first, followed by Matthew two years later in July 1985 and Tracie two years after that. The children were a close trio who looked out for one another, with Matt, despite being small for his age, stepping into the role of protective brother if anyone gave the girls guff.

He was an athletic child, who played basketball in his church league along with soccer and baseball growing up, and he was a bit of a cut-up in class.

But he was always serious about joining the military. When Matt first announced his intentions around age 9, Snyder wrote it off as an ambition his son would outgrow. But it never went away.

"He just really believed in that model of 'a few good men,' " Snyder said.

When Matt was 17, in his senior year at Westminster High School, he came to his father with a hard question. He wanted his consent to sign up for the Marines before his 18th birthday, which wouldn't come until after graduation.

"I talked to him for probably a good week, two weeks, three weeks," Snyder said. "At the time, we were just getting involved in the Iraq war, and I wasn't too thrilled about him going in."

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