By ANDY MARSO
WASHINGTON (March 2, 2011) - The First Amendment that 20-year-old Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder died defending in Iraq ultimately shielded a group that tormented his family by using his funeral to promote its anti-gay message.
The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that the Westboro Baptist Church was constitutionally-protected from the lawsuit brought by Snyder's father. Albert Snyder sued the church's founder, Fred Phelps, after he and five others picketed the funeral on March 10, 2006, in Westminster.
Matthew Snyder was not gay, but Westboro members say U.S. military deaths are God's vengeance for the country's tolerance of homosexuality.
The court ruled 8-1, with Justice Samuel Alito dissenting.
"The record makes clear that the applicable legal term "emotional distress" fails to capture fully the anguish Westboro's choice added to Mr. Snyder's already incalculable grief," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion. "But Westboro conducted its picketing peacefully on matters of public concern at a public place adjacent to a public street. Such space occupies a 'special position in terms of First Amendment protection.'"
The court noted that Westboro picketers maintained their distance from St. John's Church, did not physically disrupt the service and Albert Snyder could only see the tops of their signs until he went home and saw news coverage.
Albert Snyder said he "fought the good fight" and was ready to move on, according to The York (Pa.) Daily Record, which covered Snyder's news conference Wednesday evening.
"Matt probably wouldn't like the decision because he knows it affects all of his brothers and sisters in the military," Snyder said. "I know Matt was with me the whole way through this."
Westboro spokeswoman Shirley Phelps-Roper said the decision was preordained, and the U.S. military has nothing to do with protecting the First Amendment.
"God gave that First Amendment," she said. "He called the United States Supreme Court to determine scripture its shield. They belong to him. He says he's going to let the wrath of man praise him; that would be Alito's dissent. Then he's going to restrain the remainder; that's the eight good guys. You understand? And they're really not 'good guys' but they're obedient."
Members of Westboro Baptist, based in Topeka, Kan., have traveled the country for more than a decade decrying homosexuality, extending their invective to the Roman Catholic Church and the military in recent years.
The BBC reported in 2007 that the church had 71 members, many of whom are related to Phelps. But they've attained outsized media attention by picketing soldiers' funerals with signs like "Fags doom nations," "America is Doomed," and "Thank God for Dead Soldiers."
Wednesday's ruling means the pickets will likely continue. Jimmie L. Foster, national commander of the American Legion, which filed an amicus brief in support of Snyder, expressed sympathy for the Snyder family in a statement released Wednesday.
"While we understand the Supreme Court ruling and we appreciate the sanctity of freedom of speech, we are very disappointed that any American would believe it appropriate to express such sentiments as those expressed by the Westboro Baptist Church," Foster said. "Especially at the funeral of an American hero who died defending the very freedoms this church abuses."
The federal government and 43 states have passed laws restricting how close protesters can be to a funeral. The court's ruling left those alone, noting that such laws can be constitutional if they are content-neutral.
Washington, D.C., lawyer Gene Schaerr, who wrote the American Legion's amicus brief, said that was a partial victory.
"They wanted to make clear that their decision shouldn't be viewed as casting any doubt on those statutes and that was one of our principle objectives in participating in the case," Schaerr said.
Raquel Guillory, spokeswoman for the Maryland Attorney General's office, said the state would continue to enforce its current law, which prohibits picketing within 100 feet of a funeral.
Justice Stephen Breyer, in a concurring opinion, said Westboro was protected in this case, but states can regulate the manner of picketing, even on public concerns. He raised the possibility of a picketer physically assaulting someone to draw media attention to his message.
In his dissent, Alito argued that while some of Westboro's speech was protected, its picketing also included personal attacks against Matthew Snyder, like signs that read "God Hates You," and "You're Going to Hell." Alito wrote that such attacks can be separated from the Phelpses' more protected speech on public issues.
He also noted that Westboro members had thousands of more appropriate venues for their protests, but picked Snyder's funeral for the pain it would cause and the publicity it would bring.
"Indeed, this is the strategy that they have routinely employed and that they will now continue to employ inflicting severe and lasting emotional injury on an ever-growing list of innocent victims," Alito wrote.
Albert Snyder sued the Phelpses in 2007 for inflicting intentional emotional distress and intrusion upon seclusion, among other things. He testified that their protest had become intertwined with the memory of his son and thinking about it made him physically ill.
"They turned this funeral into a media circus and they wanted to hurt my family," Snyder said in his testimony. "They wanted their message heard and they didn't care who they stepped over. My son should have been buried with dignity, not with a bunch of clowns outside."
A jury in the United States District Court for the District of Maryland found in Snyder's favor and ordered the Phelpses to pay him $10.9 million. But the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the decision, and the Supreme Court took the case last October.
Phelps-Roper and four other members of the church were in the area to speak to a behavorial science unit at the FBI National Academy in Quantico, Va, on Tuesday. They also picketed outside Northwestern High School in Hyattsville, which they said was part of an immoral Maryland school system.
They were headed back to Kansas when the decision was announced and Phelps-Roper said she found out via her Twitter feed as soon as she got off the plane.
She and the others were celebrating victory Wednesday, but at the same time Maryland lawmakers were defying them on gay rights.
Last week the Maryland Senate passed a bill legalizing same-sex marriage. It's under consideration in the House and Gov. Martin O'Malley has said he will sign it into law.