In winning protest case, father vows to put church out of business

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 1, 2007 

Albert Snyder talks to the media after Wednesday's verdict.

GLENN FAWCETT / MCT

WASHINGTON — You can't falsely yell "fire" in a crowded theater. And if Albert Snyder gets his way, you won't be able to go to a military funeral and hold up a sign that says, "Thank God for dead soldiers."

It might come as a blow to purists who want to defend free speech, no matter how ugly it is. But Snyder figures the First Amendment will survive just fine.

A day after winning a $10.9 million verdict against Westboro Baptist Church and its leaders for picketing his son Matthew's funeral last year, Snyder was tired and drained Thursday. But he was defiant, too, promising to run the Topeka, Kan., church out of business to make sure that other grieving families don't have to put up with demonstrators at funerals.

"I don't expect to collect $10 million, but I do intend to collect everything they have," Snyder said in an interview.

Snyder, 52, a salesman from York, Pa., said he celebrated the verdict by getting some sleep. Under a gag order the judge imposed, he was barred from speaking to reporters during the seven-day trial in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, but he awoke to do interviews.

"I want to spread the word about these people," he said. "I want other people to try to come forward if they've been terrorized by these people. I basically want to shut them down."

Snyder is going very public with his fight. He's created a legal fund and set up a Web site — www.matthewsnyder.org — and is urging the public to write to elected officials urging them to pass laws that would prevent picketing at funerals.

Leaders of the 71-member Westboro church, founded by Fred Phelps Sr. in 1955, sounded equally defiant and promised to appeal the verdict.

"In his compassion, for the last 17 years, God has sent his servants — the apple of his eye — from this humble little church, to warn you daily to flee from the wrath to come," the church said in a statement.

With the case attracting national publicity, the church expressed its satisfaction.

"Not only did you fail to stop our preaching, but our message has gone forth to the entire world," the statement said. " . . . Thank God for the $10.9 million verdict!"

Church officials said the verdict would have no effect on their picketing plans. They plan to protest at two funerals Friday: one for Army Sgt. Scott Turner in Norton, Kan., and one for Army Staff Sgt. Larry Rougle at Kearns, Utah.

Church officials say they take their pickets to funerals to protest the military's defense of a country that tolerates homosexuality. They expressed confidence that an appellate court will overturn the verdict because the First Amendment protects their speech and religion.

Snyder and his attorneys think otherwise.

"The reality is that the First Amendment has survived 200 years without anyone protesting funerals, and I think it's safe to say that if this group is shut down and cannot protest funerals, the First Amendment will survive another 200 years," said Sean Summers, Snyder's attorney. "The First Amendment isn't unlimited. All speech isn't protected."

Snyder said he felt confident throughout the trial, worrying about the verdict only when the jury broke its deliberations to ask for a Bible.

"I just was concerned that they were trying to find something in the Bible that said it was OK for them to do what they did," he said.

Snyder predicted that the verdict ultimately will force the church to stop its protests.

"I think initially they're going to come back and do something just to prove their point, but I think in the long run we're going to have a tremendous impact on that," he said.

As Snyder's case against the church works its way through an appeal, it could take years to get a resolution, he said. But he said he'd been buoyed by the thousands of phone calls, letters and e-mails he'd received, including many from Kansans who knew the church members best; he said those had been his favorite. Last weekend alone, he said, he received more than 1,500 e-mails.

Snyder, who broke down in tears several times during the trial, said it would take him some time to deal with his emotions. He sued the church only three months after his 20-year-old son was killed in Iraq in March 2006. He's divorced and has two daughters: Sarah, 23, and Tracie, 19. He said he became depressed and couldn't properly grieve after the protesters disrupted his son's funeral, which prompted him to sue.

Looking back on his long ordeal, he said the Westboro protesters had hurt him most with one sign. It had a simple message: "You're going to hell."

McClatchy Newspapers 2007

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