WASHINGTON (BP)–While an overwhelming number of Americans are disturbed with the message the Westboro Baptist Church promotes, many fear rights protected by the First Amendment could be jeopardized if the U.S. Supreme Court does not rule in its favor.
The high court heard oral arguments Oct. 6 in the controversial case involving protests at military funerals. Albert Snyder, father of deceased Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, filed suit against Fred Phelps and his Topeka, Kan., independent church, saying a protest by the group outside his son’s funeral in 2006 caused him extensive emotional anguish and invaded his family’s right to privacy. The church is not affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention or any other denomination.
“I don’t know what the rules ought to be there,” Associate Justice Stephen Breyer said during the arguments, referring to the right of an individual to put anything online or on television even when the material “attacks … the most private things of a private individual.”
Phelps and his congregation are known nationwide for their inflammatory demonstrations, often outside the funerals of U.S. armed services members who were killed in Iraq or Afghanistan. The church protests with brightly colored signs and T-shirts reading, for example: “God hates fags,” “God hates America,” and “Thank God for dead soldiers.”
Many states have passed time, place and manner laws that put restrictions on protestors. For example, Colorado law says protestors outside abortion facilities must maintain an eight-foot distance from those entering or exiting the premises. Since the Kansas church frequently holds demonstrations at times and places that fall under such restrictions, the congregation — which consists primarily of Phelps family members — must be careful to strictly adhere to the law. To date, the members of the church have not been in violation of such regulations.
Snyder, however, is suing the family on counts of violation of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress. A Maryland court originally ruled in favor of Snyder, awarding him $10.9 million but later reducing the amount to $5 million. However, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals later ruled in favor of Phelps, saying the speech was protected by the First Amendment.
Sean Summers, the attorney representing Snyder, told justices there was no relevant Supreme Court precedent that included invasion of privacy and targeted hate speech at a private person as rights protected by the First Amendment. He argued in court the signs the church protested with that day, including ones reading “You’re going to hell” and “Thank God for dead soldiers,” were specifically referring to Matthew Snyder. He cited an epic poem, written by Westboro and later posted on its website, that specifically referred to Snyder and his parents. Associate Justice Samuel Alito seemed to agree, saying, “If you read the epic, perhaps that sheds light on who ‘you’ is.”
Summers made the case this was a private ceremony and that Westboro invaded this right to privacy. Furthermore, Summers said the Phelpses specifically targeted the Snyder family and personally harassed its members, an act he said shouldn’t be protected by free speech.
“I would hope that the First Amendment wasn’t enacted to allow people to disrupt and harass people at someone else’s private funeral,” Summers said.
However, some of the justices seemed to struggle to accept that the Snyder family, rather than society in general, was the target of the church’s attacks.
Margie Phelps, daughter of Fred Phelps and attorney for her family, tried to play up this dissension, claiming the church was simply using the ceremony to incite public debate on a national issue — the war in Iraq. She also argued the church was responding to a message Snyder brought to the public debate himself by submitting a statement to his local newspaper questioning the war following his son’s death. The church, therefore, was not invading the family’s privacy by responding to his questioning.
“The words that were at issue in this case were people from a church delivering a religious viewpoint, commenting not only on the broader public issues that the discussion was underway in this nation about dying soldiers, about the morals of the nation,” Phelps said.
The justices questioned Phelps on whether Albert or Matthew Snyder were considered public or private figures and whether or not the First Amendment provided the church the right to enter public discourse with such outrageous claims about a private individual and family.
Some of the justices alleged the church was using the ceremony to maximize the publicity of its message.
“The question is: Why should the First Amendment tolerate exploiting this Marine’s family when you have so many other forums for … getting across your message?” Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said.
However, Phelps said throughout her argument the church was not seeking to exploit Matthew Snyder or his family but rather to present its point of view. She closed, saying “a church or anybody else has the right to answer that public comment.”
Immediately following the hearing, many spectators were unsure what the court would decide; however, both sides seemed confident. While the Phelpses said they had the First Amendment on their side, Snyder had the support of 53 senators, including both the majority and minority leaders, as well as the sympathy of the American people.
While the Supreme Court seemed to focus primarily on the free speech implications of the case, religious leaders have expressed concern about the consequences this case could bring to the religious community as a whole. Most agree the tactics of the Westboro Baptist Church are extreme and offensive. If the church loses this case, however, other religious institutions could lose liberties as well, they said.
Southern Baptist church-state leader Richard Land warned “bad cases make for bad law and bad precedent.”
“What the Westboro Baptist Church does is odious and despicable,” said Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “In exercising their free-speech right to insult the memory and bring further emotional harm to loved ones of fallen heroes, they are engaging in disgraceful behavior. I cannot imagine how I would feel if I were a father grieving a son who was killed defending our freedoms and I had to listen to the taunts and see the insulting signs and placards of Westboro Baptist Church; it would be rubbing salt in a raw wound.”
Land told Baptist Press, “My heart tells me they should be outlawed from doing this; however, my head tells me that anytime we allow the government to restrict religious speech and activity for any reason, we are setting a very dangerous precedent and we are embarking on a steep and slippery slope to dark and dangerous places. What government is allowed to do to Westboro Baptist Church today, they could be allowed to do to other religious groups tomorrow or the day after.”
An opinion in the case, Snyder v. Phelps, is expected before the court adjourns next summer.
Hannah Cummings is as an intern with the Washington bureau of Baptist Press.