The Supreme Court will hear one of the most controversial cases of the term on Wednesday regarding protests at military funerals by members of a Baptist church.
The case concerns the Westboro Baptist Church and its Pastor, Fred W. Phelps, whose congregation travels the country and protests at the funerals of fallen servicemen. The congregation is made up mostly of Phelps' family members who believe that soldiers are dying in part because there are gays serving in the military. The church members get permits for their protests near funerals and carry signs with slogans such as, "God Hates You" and "God Hates Fags."
The Supreme Court will have to weigh the privacy concerns of families mourning the deaths of their loved ones against the protesters' First Amendment rights of free speech.
In 2006 the church members protested outside the Maryland funeral of Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder, who was killed in Iraq. He was not a homosexual. A few days later the church posted what it called an epic poem on its Web site entitled, "The Burden of Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder. " It was addressed to his parents and said in part, "They taught him to support the largest pedophile machine in the history of the entire world, the Roman Catholic monstrosity."
Matthew Snyder's father, Albert Snyder, sued the Westboro Baptist Church in federal court arguing that the church had violated his family's privacy and inflicted emotional distress. Snyder ultimately won a judgment of $5 million.
But a federal appeals court threw out the judgment finding that the protest signs weren't aimed at Snyder specifically and said the statements are protected by the Constitution because they contained "imaginative and hyperbolic rhetoric" meant to spark debate.
The three judge panel wrote, "We are constrained to agree that these signs are entitled to First Amendment protection."
According to Jeffrey Rosen, a professor at the George Washington University Law school, "This case might not have huge constitutional dimensions but it does raise this very important question, namely: how much protection do relatively private figures have against hurtful, outrageous, insulting, emotionally-aggravating speech."
Margie J. Phelps, who is Pastor Phelps' daughter and serves as the counsel of record for Westboro Baptist Church, said the case provides an "excellent platform for the words that we've faithfully delivered to the nation for twenty years." She says that the church has attended over 600 funerals of soldiers because members of the congregation are trying to get out the message that if the military stops accepting homosexuals, soldiers will stop dying.
"The issue about these dead soldiers is an issue of acute public importance," Margie Phelps said.
Craig Trebilcock, a lawyer for Albert Snyder, detailed how his client was devastated that the members of the church invaded his privacy.
"Mr. Snyder felt that he had one opportunity, a few hours, to say goodbye to his son and they were torn away from him. He can't think about his son's passing and can't get closure because every time he thinks of his son's death and his funeral, he sees the Phelps family carrying a sign saying "you're in hell," said Trebilcock.
The attorney hopes the court will look at the case as a balancing test and rule in favor of Snyder's claim to the right to peaceful and religious assembly.