St. John parishioners weigh in on Supreme Court Westboro ruling

Five years after 'despicable' anti-gay funeral picket, Westminster church still offended

  • Rev. Msgr. James P. Farmer is the Pastor of St. John Roman Catholic Church, where Westboro Baptist Church members picketed the funeral of Marine Lance. Cpl. Matthew Snyder in 2006.
Rev. Msgr. James P. Farmer is the Pastor of St. John Roman Catholic… (Algerina Perna, Baltimore…)
March 06, 2011|By Eileen Ambrose, The Baltimore Sun

For many parishioners at St. John Roman Catholic Church in Westminster, the U.S. Supreme Court got it wrong last week.

Five years ago this week, St. John held a funeral mass for Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder that was picketed by anti-gay protesters from the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan. Snyder's father sued Westboro for intentional infliction of emotional distress. That case worked its way up to the Supreme Court, which ruled 8-1 last week that the protest — despite the pain it caused — was protected free speech under the First Amendment.

"That's a travesty that they can do that protest … with disregard for the family," said Bob Repsher, a parishioner at St. John for more than 40 years. "They have no feelings. I can't see how they can call themselves Christian."

This past weekend was the first time since the ruling that parishioners congregated. As they milled into the church, they passed a photo of Snyder in his uniform that hangs on the rear wall, along with pictures of a dozen parishioners on active duty. St. John is large, with nearly 9,000 members, and many of those interviewed on Sunday said they don't know the Snyder family. But they all have strong feelings on the outcome of the case.

"For me, the First Amendment does give us a lot of opportunities to speak our mind, but we need not go beyond the pale," said Gail Young, a retired chief financial officer with a university association.

Young said her father was in the military and is buried in Arlington Cemetery. "I would have just been heartbroken had they made a spectacle at my father's funeral and wouldn't let me grieve in my own way without imposing themselves," the 72-year-old said.

Like others, Pat Scheper doesn't like what the Kansas church is doing, "but our Constitution guarantees us freedom of speech. Although I may not like the speech that they did, it's their right."

He added that the Constitution protects many rights, including freedom of religion, and all must be supported equally. "Like it or not, we have to support the whole Constitution," the 57-year-old said.

The court's decision came on the eve of the fifth anniversary of Snyder's death in a Humvee accident in Iraq.

Some parishioners aren't sure what point the Westboro protesters were trying to make.

Westboro maintains that God hates the United States for its tolerance of gays. To attract attention, the fringe church has picketed nearly 600 military funerals in the past 20 years, often carrying signs with offensive statements such as "Thank God for Dead Soldiers."

At the Westminster protest, Westboro members peacefully picketed on public property about 1,000 feet from the church in accordance with police instructions.

"There would appear to be on their part a cold, calculated effort to inflict enormous emotional damage on the parents and others who are grieving," said Monsignor James P. Farmer, pastor of St. John. "That is despicable."

Farmer was assigned to St. John just five weeks ago from a Parkville church. But as a lawyer, Farmer followed the case from afar and praised Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. for his dissenting vote.

"Throughout history the Supreme Court has made bad decisions," Farmer added. He said he hoped this ruling like other poor ones in the past that upheld slavery and racial segregation will eventually be overturned, too.

Lou Harding, whose daughter went to grade school with Matthew Synder, also praised Alito's "courage" to stand up against the protesters' actions.

Harding remembers Snyder's funeral and the talk among the parishioners about whether they should hold a counter-protest. Instead, a group of motorcyclists drove their bikes to the protest to act as a buffer between the Snyder family and the protesters, he said.

The case put the small city of Westminster and the church in the national spotlight for five years. But parishioners said the publicity had little impact.

"The Ravens come up here to practice. There is more hype with that," Jean Repsher said.

    Baltimore Sun Articles
    Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.