Snyder gets VFW support in case against protesters at son's funeral

Petition signed by 40,000 backs legal fight against Westboro Baptist Church

May 29, 2010|By Jessica Anderson, The Baltimore Sun

John Emswiler, who spent 13 months in Vietnam, remembers being spit on while serving in the Marines from 1967 to 1970.

After the treatment he received, Emswiler, 62, said he felt an obligation to sign a Veterans of Foreign Wars petition in support of Albert Snyder's case against members of Westboro Baptist Church, which will be heard by the Supreme Court in October.

Snyder's legal battle began after his son, Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew A. Snyder, 20, was killed in a Humvee accident in Iraq on March 3, 2006. A week later, Westboro Baptist members stood outside the funeral at St. John's Roman Catholic Church in Westminster, waving signs that said "Thank God for dead soldiers" and "God hates fags" as mourners grieved inside.

"I can't believe someone would do something like that," Emswiler said Saturday. He was attending a Memorial Day service at Monocacy Valley Memorial Post 6918 in Taneytown, where Snyder was presented with the VFW petition, signed by 40,000 people from across the country who support his legal fight against the church.

"We stand to support him and his endeavors to pursue this legal matter," said Frank M. Rauschenberg, who contacted Snyder to speak at the VFW event.

Snyder spoke to the crowd of about 50 and was presented the petition by Cmdr. Albert Angell and state Senior Vice Cmdr. Douglas McArthur of the Department of Maryland VFW.

Church members had never met Matthew, who was not gay, or his family. 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 federal court in Baltimore a few months after his son was killed, contending that they invaded his privacy and intentionally inflicted emotional distress. A Maryland jury awarded him $2.9 million in compensatory damages and $8 million in punitive damages in October 2007, but in September 2009, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, in Richmond, Va., overturned the lower court's verdict, with two of the three judges citing the church members' right to free speech.

On March 8, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case in the fall. More than 45 state attorneys-general have signed an amicus brief in support of the case, Snyder v. Phelps.

"It's an uphill battle," Snyder said Saturday. "People want to make this out as free speech. But to me, this case is [about] harassment," adding that he does not want other families to endure such pain.

He said he gets several thousand e-mail messages a week, many from soldiers following the case. Many have said that the verdict would affect their careers in the military, according to Snyder, because they don't want their families to face such protests.

Even with the support, Snyder said, he will be glad when October comes.

"It gets tiring," he said. "I feel like I'm doing two full-time jobs."

Previous versions of this article gave an incorrect age for John Emswiler. The Sun regrets the error.

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