WASHINGTON – The father of a Marine killed in Iraq is asking the Supreme Court to reinstate a $5 million verdict against members of a fundamentalist church who picketed his son's funeral with signs like "Thank God for Dead Soldiers" and "God Hates the USA."
The court is hearing arguments Wednesday in the dispute between Albert Snyder of York, Pa., and members of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan. The case pits Snyder's right to grieve privately against the church members' right to say what they want, no matter how offensive.
Westboro members, led by the Rev. Fred Phelps, have picketed many military funerals to make their point that U.S. deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq are punishment for Americans' immorality, including tolerance of homosexuality and abortion.
They welcome the attention the protests have brought, mocking their critics and vowing not to change their ways whatever the outcome at the Supreme Court.
"No American should ever be required to apologize for following his or her conscience," said Margie Phelps, a daughter of Fred Phelps and the lawyer who is arguing the case for the church.
Snyder undertook the lawsuit after the Phelpses picketed the funeral of his son, Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, in March 2006. The Marine was killed in a Humvee accident.
Snyder won an $11 million verdict against the church for intentional infliction of emotional distress, among other claims. A judge reduced the award to $5 million before the federal appeals court in Richmond, Va., threw out the verdict altogether, citing the church's First Amendment rights.
For Snyder, the case is not about free speech but harassment. "I had one chance to bury my son and it was taken from me," Snyder said.
Forty-eight states, 42 U.S. senators and veterans groups have sided with Snyder, asking the court to shield funerals from the Phelpses' "psychological terrorism."
While distancing themselves from the church's message, media organizations, including The Associated Press, have called on the court to side with the Phelpses because of concerns that a victory for Snyder could erode speech rights.