By David Waters
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ordered the family of a slain Marine to pay $16,510.80 in court costs to a congregation that organized an anti-gay protest during the Marine’s funeral. The congregation, which claims God is using soldiers’ deaths to punish America for “the sin of homosexuality,” plans to use some of that money to fund more demonstrations at soldiers’ funerals.
Seems like the only people being punished here are grieving family members of the dead soldiers.
“By the court making this decision, they’re not only telling me that they’re taking their side, but I have to pay them money to do this to more soldiers and their families,” Albert Snyder, whose son, Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, was killed in action in Iraq in 2006, told CNN.
The court’s order follows its ruling earlier this month in favor of the free speech and assembly rights of the protesters from Westboro Baptist Church, who waved signs saying “God hates the USA”, “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” and signs with anti-gay slurs at Snyder’s funeral in Maryland.
The Snyder family sued the congregation in 2007, claiming privacy invasion, intentional infliction of emotional distress and civil conspiracy. A jury awarded the family $2.9 million in compensatory damages plus $8 million in punitive damages, amounts later reduced to $5 million. The congregation appealed and earlier this month the 4th Circuit reversed the jury’s verdict.
“The protest was confined to a public area under supervision and regulation of local law enforcement and did not disrupt the church service,” the circuit court opinion said. “Although reasonable people may disagree about the appropriateness of the (congregation’s) protest, this conduct simply does not satisfy the heavy burden required for the tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress under Maryland law,” the court ruled.
The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear the Snyder family’s appeal.
According to the Anti-Defamation League, the Topeka (Kan.) church, founded in the 1950s and incorporated in the 1960s, “is a small virulently homophobic, anti-Semitic hate group that regularly stages protests around the country, often several times a week.” In addition to military funerals, the congregation — composed primarily of leader Fred Phelps and his family members — stages protests at other sorts of funerals as well as at churches it considers heretical (nearly all others) and synagogues.
Congregation members say that “God’s hatred is one of His holy attributes.” The congregation’s various Web sites have included godhatesamerica.com and godhatesfags.com.
On the positive side, the courts’ continuing protection of Westboro’s hateful protests gives lie to claims by some evangelicals that laws against hate speech will prevent ministers from preaching against homosexuality. As Westboro proves week after week, hate speech does not necessarily lead to hate crimes.
On the other hand, it seems beyond cruel that courts can’t protect grieving families of soldiers who sacrificed their lives for the sorts of freedom Westboro’s hateful protesters are using to ridicule and distress grieving families.
It also seems beyond redemption that people who call themselves Christians can be so hateful to grieving families.
They say freedom isn’t free. They also say they’ll know we are Christians by our love.