March 2, 2011— -- Leaders of the controversial Westboro Baptist Church today vowed to "quadruple" the number of protests at military funerals around the country following a Supreme Court ruling that the displays are protected under the First Amendment.
"We are trying to warn you to flee the wrath of God, flee the wrath of destruction. What would be more kind than that," a fiery Margie J. Phelps, the lead legal counsel for the church and daughter of pastor Fred Phelps, told reporters. "We have not slowed down and we will not."
Phelps and other members of the Topeka, Kan., church have picketed outside many military funerals holding signs with offensive messages such as "God Hates You" and "God Hates Fags." The church believes military deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan are God's punishment for U.S. tolerance of homosexuality and a sign the nation's destruction is imminent.
Albert Snyder, whose son Matthew was killed in Iraq in 2006, sued the Church after members loudly protested at his funeral. Snyder's suit argued that the demonstrations inflicted intentional emotional harm and should be prohibited. The Supreme Court disagreed.
"Shut up all that talk about infliction of emotional distress," Phelps said of Snyder's claim after the decision was handed down. "When you're standing there with your young child's body bits and pieces in a coffin you've been dealt some emotional distress by the Lord your God."
An eight-justice majority on the Court ruled that the protests, while hurtful, were permissible under the Constitution. One justice, Samuel Alito, dissented from the majority saying the "vicious verbal assault" imposed "great injury" to Snyder.
"He simply didn't follow his oath, he'll have to take that up with God," Phelps said of Alito. "I very much appreciate the fact that I get to be the mouth of God in this matter."
First Amendment advocates hailed the court for separating the emotionally charged nature of Westboro's message with the fundamental right to free expression.
"This is a historic first amendment case," said constitutional lawyer Cliff Sloan. "This is the kind of case that is going to have an influence for generations. It is the Supreme Court standing up and giving constitutional protection to extremely unpopular speech. It's really what the first amendment is all about."
Military Families Oppose Court Ruling
American Civil Liberties Union legal director Steve Shapiro said the court rightfully and respectfully acknowledged the Snyder family's grief. "But it correctly holds that the response to that grief cannot include the abandonment of core First Amendment principles designed to protect even the most unpopular speech on matters of public concern," he said.
A coalition of military families, including those who've lost loved ones in the line of duty, and their supporters passionately disagreed.
"This court has no problem with the government sending our children over to these wars, send them back in a body bag and not even have enough respect for that dead soldier to be buried peacefully," Albert Snyder told reporters today.
"Right now, with this opinion, it's everything goes. It's nothing stopping Westboro from going to your daughter's wedding because they think the Catholic Church is bad. And these justices, they don't have to worry about this because the Westboro church and any other nut job like this will not get near their family or their funeral," he said. "They don't have to worry about it. It's us that have to worry about it."
John Ellsworth, whose son was killed in Iraq and heads the group Military Families United, said the court's decision is ironic since the church members are exercising a right that military service members are fighting and dying to protect.
Military "families deserve the respect of a grateful nation, not hate from a group who chooses to demonstrate during the funeral of their loved one," he said.
Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who's been an outspoken advocate for military families, said in a twitter message that "common sense and decency absent" in the ruling, which allows a "wacko 'church'" to spew hate messages.