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CULTURE DIGEST: Fred Phelps sued by father of Marine who was killed in Iraq

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Fred Phelps and his independent Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., have been ordered to pay nearly $11 million in damages for invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress to the father of a Marine who died in Iraq.

“They turned this funeral into a media circus and they wanted to hurt my family,” Albert Synder, whose son Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder died in March 2006, testified during a trial in Baltimore Oct. 24. “They wanted their message heard and they didn’t care who they stepped over. My son should have been buried with dignity, not with a bunch of clowns outside.”

A jury awarded Snyder $2.9 million in compensatory damages and $8 million in punitive damages Oct. 31, but the Associated Press reported that it’s unclear whether Snyder will be able to collect the damages given that the assets of the church are less than $1 million, mainly in homes, cars and retirement accounts belonging to members.

Observers said the case examined whether the First Amendment guarantee of free speech extends to the church’s picketing of soldiers’ funerals with signs that read “God Hates You” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.”

“I see that sign when I lay in bed,” Snyder said in court, according to AP.

Westboro Baptist is not affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention or any other Baptist denomination, and its 60 members are mostly relatives of Phelps, the pastor who has been at the center of controversy for years. The congregation believes soldiers are dying in the war on terror because God is judging America for tolerating homosexuals.

Several states, including Maryland, where Snyder’s funeral was held, have since passed laws banning funeral protests such as those by Westboro Baptist, and Congress has passed a law prohibiting protests at military funerals at federal cemeteries. This case was believed to be the first filed by the family of a fallen serviceman, AP said.

Snyder’s attorney said the church should not be allowed to hide behind a free speech argument because they abused a “captive audience,” which included about 500 funeral guests who were forced to listen to and see the protests. One key question, AP reported, was whether a church, funeral home or cemetery should be considered private or public during a ceremony.

U.S. District Judge Richard Bennett, who presided over the case, told jurors there are limits to free speech, including speech that is vulgar, offensive and shocking, and he asked jurors to decide whether the church group’s actions would be highly offensive to a reasonable person, AP said.

A university of Baltimore law professor said the fact that the Westboro Baptist case was decided by a jury rather than a judge was in Snyder’s favor.

“Judges are probably more neutral, more sterile, less emotionally attached,” Byron Warnken told AP. “Whereas, in this case, my gut feeling is there’s a tremendous gathering of support from an empathy or sympathy standpoint, or just an outrage standpoint, in favor of the plaintiffs.”

‘A LA CARTE CABLE’ PREFERRED BY MORE SUBSCRIBERS — More than half the nation’s cable subscribers favor an a la carte system that would allow them to purchase channels individually instead of in bulk packages, according to a poll by Zogby Interactive released in October.

Fifty-two percent of the 3,200-plus cable subscribers surveyed said they would prefer to choose which channels they get, while 35 percent were satisfied with the current bulk system and 12 percent were undecided, Zogby said.

In June, the Family and Consumer Choice Act of 2007 was introduced in Congress and then referred to the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet. The bipartisan bill would require cable and satellite providers to either limit indecent programming during daylight hours, offer a family tier of programming or offer an opt-out a la carte package to customers.

Various pro-family advocates have supported the a la carte option in an effort to give parents more control over what their children watch on television and to stop charging consumers for offensive channels they don’t watch.

The Zogby poll found that 71 percent of respondents disagreed with having to pay for cable channels they don’t watch and 46 percent strongly disagreed. Some programmers, Zogby noted, oppose the a la carte system because they fear that smaller, less well-known channels would not survive if they were not included in a bulk channel package.

“Television today offers viewers an extraordinary variety of programming on numerous channels,” Federal Communications Chairman Kevin Martin said when the legislation was introduced.

“Today, networks offer some of the best, most original and diverse programming ever produced. They also offer, however, some of the coarsest programming ever produced,” Martin added.

“Parents must have the tools to help their children take advantage of the good television can offer, while enabling them to limit their children’s exposure to violent and sexual content they believe is inappropriate.”

For a list of the representatives on the telecommunications subcommittee, visit energycommerce.house.gov.

ANGLICANS GIVE EPISCOPALS ANOTHER CHANCE — After Episcopal bishops pledged not to authorize blessing ceremonies for same-sex couples and to exercise restraint in the consecration of homosexuals as bishops, representatives in the worldwide Anglican Communion so far are satisfied that the terms of their directive have been met.

Earlier this year, the communion’s regional leaders had asked that the Episcopal Church stop consecrating homosexual bishops and stop blessing same-sex couples, and in New Orleans in October, Episcopal bishops vowed to comply.

“We believe the Episcopal Church has clarified all outstanding questions,” the primates said, adding that the church has “given the necessary assurances sought of them.”

But some conservative members of the Episcopal Church and Anglican Communion say the bishops simply reworded past positions and failed to comply with the directive, The New York Times explained.

The Episcopal Church is not out of the woods yet, as all the primates and members of the fuller Anglican Consultive Council must approve the bishops’ report.

Meanwhile, Episcopalians will have a chance to keep their word as one of the eight finalists for the next Episcopal bishop of Chicago is a homosexual woman. Though observers don’t classify her as one of the two leading contenders, she would be the second openly homosexual bishop in the denomination, following the widely controversial consecration of V. Gene Robinson in 2003.
Erin Roach is a staff writer for Baptist Press.

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