WASHINGTON (BP)–The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to decide whether Fred Phelps and his independent Baptist church in Kansas had a constitutional right to protest at the funeral of a slain Marine.
The high court announced its acceptance of an appeal by Albert Snyder, whose son’s funeral was the target of a protest by Phelps and others from Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan. Westboro is not affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention or any other denomination.
The funeral of Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder in March 2006 is one of hundreds chosen by Phelps and fellow church members for protests since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq began. Phelps and his followers believe the deaths of American military personnel overseas demonstrate God is judging the country for its toleration of homosexuality.
Phelps and his fellow protesters picketed outside Snyder’s funeral at Westminster, Md., after he died while serving in Iraq. The group’s signs included the messages “God Hates the USA,” “Thank God for dead soldiers” and “Semper fi fags.”
In September, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a federal court’s 2007 decision, which had granted Albert Snyder, $5 million in damages. The appeals court based in Richmond, Va., ruled the protesters’ speech was protected by the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment.
The lower court had granted damages for invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Maryland and other states have enacted laws restricting such protests, and Congress has passed a law barring protests of military funerals at federal cemeteries.
Most of the members of Westside Baptist Church are relatives of Phelps.
Oral arguments in the case, Snyder v. Phelps, will not be heard until the next Supreme Court term, which begins in October.
Compiled by Tom Strode, Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press. Erin Roach, BP staff writer, contributed to this article.