Commentary: Fred Phelps' Westboro is a church in name only

The Miami HeraldApril 6, 2010 

US NEWS FUNERALPROTESTS 3 BZ

Fred Phelps and members of the Topeka, Kansas based Westboro Baptist Church demonstrate on Pratt Street in downtown Baltimore, Maryland.

JED KIRSCHBAUM / MCT

You will be furious when you finish this column. Fair warning.

In March 2006 a 20-year-old Marine, Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, was killed in a motor vehicle accident in Iraq. His family probably thought that the most painful blow imaginable. Truth is, their pain was only beginning.

Cpl. Snyder's death, you see, came to the attention of Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas. Westboro, for those who do not know, is no more a church than is your average gas station toilet. According to published reports, it claims about 75 members, most of them kin to its leader, Fred Phelps. And Phelps preaches a "gospel" of anti-homosexuality that is grotesque even by the standards of fundamentalist hate.

It is his thesis that because America has embraced "fags," God is punishing the nation. God's instrument of choice? Dead soldiers. "Thank God for dead soldiers," he says. Phelps has taken to spreading this message at the funerals of service men and women — noisy, hateful protests that grieving families are forced to endure on one of the worst days of their lives.

So in March 2006, Westboro protesters showed up at St. John's Catholic Church ("St. John's Kennel" in their formulation) in Westminster, Md., for Snyder's funeral, reportedly carrying signs depicting male sex and slogans like "Semper Fi Fags."

Are you furious yet? This isn't even the bad part.

For the record, no one -- Westboro included -- has accused Matthew Snyder of being gay -- not that that should matter. But the church's bizarre argument is that the death of every dead service person should be celebrated as God's punishment of a gay-tolerant nation.

Cpl. Snyder's father, Albert, sued the "church" for disrupting his son's funeral. In October 2007, he won a $10.9 million verdict. Last September, an appeals court tossed that verdict out.

Nor is even that the worst of it. No, the worst is that the court recently ordered Snyder to pay Westboro's legal bills. You heard me. Snyder, who makes $43,000 a year, must pay $16,500 to the people who made a circus of his son's funeral. "You can do the math," says his attorney, Sean Summers. Snyder has been forced to seek donations online (www.matthewsnyder.org). Westboro says it will use the money to give the same treatment to another grieving family.

Take it as a reminder that what is legal is not necessarily right. I admit to being conflicted. I am a strong believer in the First Amendment and in the principle that freedom of speech means nothing unless it is protected for the vilest among us: even the flag burner, even the anti-Semite, even, as in this case, the intellectually incontinent. On the other hand, the protections are not absolute: There is no First Amendment right to threaten or to libel.

So surely we could carve out some reasonable exception that would keep a Fred Phelps from intruding upon the solemnity of a private funeral. Of course, those are legal questions and I am content to leave them to legal minds.

I am consumed with a human question: How addled by hatred do you have to be, how niggardly of spirit, shriveled of soul, and just plain crazy, to do what these people have done? To use one of my mother's favorite expressions, these "Christians" are going to knock the bottom out of hell.

While we await that lovely day, this case is bound for the Supreme Court where Summers will continue representing Albert Snyder for free. I asked the attorney why and he told me that he's a veteran and has a brother doing a third tour in Afghanistan.

"I would be appalled if someone did something like this at my funeral."

You'd like to think that's unimaginable. But we live in a country where it's anything but. For better -- and some days, for worse -- those are the rights people like Matthew Snyder die to defend.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com. He chats with readers every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EDT at Ask Leonard.

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