Slain Marine's Dad Calls Funeral Protests Criminal

Dad ordered to pay picketers but Bill O'Reilly said he would help.

April 1, 2010— -- Albert Snyder had already buried his Marine son amid protesters carrying signs he considered hateful. But with an order to pay thousands of dollars in legal costs to the group of picketers, Snyder said, he and his family have endured extraordinary anguish from the moment a fringe group announced it would picket his son's funeral through a devastating court battle that has so far ended in defeat.

"It was bad enough that they reversed the decision, but then to tell me I had to pay them money so they can do this to more military funerals, that's what hurts the most," Albert Snyder said on "Good Morning America" today.

Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, 20, died while serving in Iraq in 2006. Members of the Westboro Baptist Church, a small congregation in Topeka, Kan., headed by the controversial Rev. Fred Phelps, protested at his funeral, claiming that the soldiers were evil because they defend a country that tolerates homosexuality.

"So many people have died in this country throughout our history to preserve such a precious right and to have a group of 80 people destroy it and mock it the way they are, it is a crime," Snyder said.

The group had published a letter announcing the protest a few days before the service, which drew a large crowd, Snyder said.

"[The] media came out of the woodwork, we had to have a SWAT team at the church, we had a Winnebago set up as a command central, we had state police, county police, sheriffs, it was just a nightmare," he said.

The protesters picketed about 30 feet from the entrance of the church in Westminster, Md., Snyder said, forcing him and his family to use a side entrance.

"They held signs that said, 'God hates you,' 'You're in hell,' 'Semper Fi Fags,'" Snyder said.

Snyder contended that the protest at his son's private funeral was an invasion of the family's privacy and brought the picketers to court. In 2007, a Baltimore district court awarded Snyder $5 million. But then a federal appeals court threw out the original judgment, saying the protest signs carried by picketers weren't aimed at Snyder specifically and that statements expressed were "protected by the Constitution" because they contained "imaginative and hyperbolic rhetoric" meant to spark debate.

Additionally, the court ordered Snyder to pay the church $16,000 in legal costs.

Upon hearing the decision, Margie J. Phelps, one of Phelps' 13 children and attorney of record for the church, said, "They wanted to shut down the picketing so now they are going to finance it."

Snyder said he found that comment "unbelievable."

Bill O'Reilly, host of Fox News' "The O'Reilly Factor," called the appeals court ruling an "abomination" and said he will pay Snyder's obligation.

"We are going to help out the Snyder family, we want them to take this to the Supreme Court, we want the country to rally around them. … This Phelps crew, these are haters, they have no right to do this and if the system can't deal with these people, then the system can't deal with anything," O'Reilly said on "Good Morning America" today.

"They have no right to disturb the peace and to intentionally inflict distress on Mr. Snyder and his family, they have no right there. They can say they have the right to freedom of speech, assembly, whatever, but they have no right to commit that crime."

Snyder thanked O'Reilly this morning for his support.

"It means a lot to me and my family and all the other families that have gone through this and the ones that will still go through this," Snyder said.

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on the case in the fall, and will rule as to whether Phelps and his congregation have the right to protest at soldiers' funerals.

Snyder's lawyer, Sean Summer, told "Good Morning America" that he is confident the Supreme Court will side with Snyder.

"We think, of course, everyone has a right to free speech, but when they took their so-called rights to Mr. Snyder's son's funeral they impeded upon his rights," he said. "They had the whole country to protest that day, they chose to travel all the way to Westminster, Md., to intentionally harass Mr. Snyder."

Margie Phelps previously said the Supreme Court's decision to hear the case would provide an "excellent platform for the words that we've faithfully delivered to the nation for 20 years."

Church's Controversial Mission

She said the church, consisting mostly of extended family members, has attended more than 600 random 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," Margie Phelps said, "is an issue of acute public importance."

Founded in 1955 by the Rev. Fred Phelps, Westboro Baptist has grown in notoriety. It started out by picketing gay parades and other related events, but the small congregation began to travel the nation in 2005 to conduct noisy protests at the funerals of fallen servicemen.

As family members arrive to grieve the loss of their loved one, the picketers confront them with screaming, songs and signs bearing inflammatory messages such as "God Hates America" and "Thank God for Dead Soldiers" and "God Hates Fags."

People were shocked and outraged by the groups' actions, and motorcycle riding veterans have begun to get involved, attending the funerals to shield the grieving families.

There's an effort underway to craft federal legislation to severely restrict the protests, as a few states have already done.

A Family Calling

Most of Phelps' 13 children -- 11 of whom are lawyers -- carry on his work. Almost all the 70 or so members of the church are members of his family. They help move Phelps' message on the Internet, and have created music videos for songs such as "God Hates the World and All Her People."

The clan now travels the country, picketing disasters everywhere and saying that all catastrophes are caused by the sins of a nation that supports homosexuals.

"Thank God for 9/11," said Phelps' daughter, attorney Shirley Phelps-Roper. "Thank him, because we all deserve death in hell, and he has mercifully spared us and it's time for repentance."

The congregation has even included its children in its protests.

Phelps-Roper was arrested in 2007 after her 10-year-old son stomped on a flag at a serviceman's funeral in Nebraska. She was charged with suspicion of contributing to the delinquency of a minor.

A judge refused to dismiss that and other related charges against her. A pre-trial conference on the case is expected this month.

ABC News' Kate McCarthy and Patrick McMenamin contributed to this report.

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