In a dispute that began at a Marine's funeral in Westminster, the Supreme Court ruled 8-1 Wednesday that the First Amendment allows the Westboro Baptist Church to peaceably picket military funerals with its hate-filled, anti-gay messages.
"Speech is powerful. It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and — as it did here — inflict great pain," Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote in the majority opinion.
"On the facts before us, we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker," he continued. "As a Nation we have chosen a different course — to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate."
The ruling, issued a day before the anniversary of Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder's death, was a bitter disappointment for the Marine's father, Albert Snyder, who sued the Topeka, Kan., church for picketing his son's funeral in 2006, alleging intentional infliction of emotional distress. But the ruling was expected by free-speech advocates, who found themselves in the uncomfortable position of having to align with a group that protests against gays, Roman Catholics, Jews and others.
"It's an opinion that supports very fundamental First Amendment principles," said Timothy Zick, a professor at William & Mary Law School in Williamsburg, Va. He joined other law professors in submitting a legal brief to the high court supporting Westboro's right to free speech.
"A lot of people react to the church itself and its message … not focusing on larger issues of public speech and free speech," Zick said.
In a telephone interview, Margie Phelps, a lawyer and the daughter of Westboro's founder, called the opinion "a victory by God" that was "10 times better than I ever imagined."
Snyder, who now lives in York, Pa., called it a sad day for military families.
"We found out today that we can no longer bury our dead with dignity," he said, standing outside the York County Courthouse Wednesday afternoon, flanked by his two attorneys, who donated their time to his case. The opinion means "anything goes," Snyder said, adding that there's now "nothing stopping Westboro from going to your daughter's wedding," because they don't like the Catholic Church.
Roberts was joined in the 15-page opinion by seven justices, though Stephen G. Breyer wrote a separate, concurring opinion. Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. was the lone dissenter.
"Our profound national commitment to free and open debate is not a license for the vicious verbal assault that occurred in this case," Alito wrote in his dissent. "Albert Snyder is not a public figure. He is simply a parent whose son … was killed in Iraq. Mr. Snyder wanted what is surely the right of any parent who experiences such an incalculable loss: to bury his son in peace. But … members of the Westboro Baptist Church deprived him of that elementary right."
Snyder's son Matthew, 20, was killed in a Humvee accident in Iraq on March 3, 2006. A week later, a handful of publicity-seeking church members, including Margie Phelps, stood outside his funeral at St. John Roman Catholic Church in Westminster, waving signs that said "God Hates America," "Thank God for Dead Soldiers" and "Semper Fi Fags," among other things.
None of them had ever met Matthew Snyder, who was not gay, or his family. They chose his funeral because it was likely to attract attention, issuing a press release beforehand.
"This strategy works," Alito noted in his dissenting opinion, "… because the media is irresistibly drawn to the sight of persons who are visibly in grief. The more outrageous the funeral protest, the more publicity the Westboro Baptist Church is able to obtain."
The church was founded in 1955 by Fred Phelps, whose 13 children have kept it, and its message, alive. They believe that God hates the United States because the country tolerates homosexuality. And they have spread that word at more than 600 funerals, in a deliberately peaceful — if distasteful — manner that complies with law enforcement requirements.
Because of their efforts, most states, including Maryland, have imposed restrictions on protests at funerals, requiring picketers to stay a certain distance from mourners.
A Maryland jury initially awarded Albert Snyder a multimillion-dollar judgment in his lawsuit against Westboro, which was overturned on appeal. The country's highest court later agreed to hear the case, which tested the limits of the First Amendment.
Arguments were held in October, and the court concluded Wednesday that Westboro's comments at Matthew's funeral constituted public speech on public matters.