WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld the right of Westboro Baptist Church to protest at military funerals with its virulent anti-gay message, which has provoked outrage across the country and along the political spectrum.
In a free-speech ruling that challenges popular opinion and could reopen debate, the court ruled that the First Amendment protects even deliberately obnoxious funeral protests such as the church's infamous "God hates fags" message.
"Given that Westboro's speech was at a public place on a matter of public concern, that speech is entitled to special protection under the First Amendment," Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. wrote for the majority.
The court's 8-1 decision in Snyder v. Phelps shields the Topeka, Kan.-based Westboro church from being sued for intentional infliction of emotional distress despite speech that Roberts called "hurtful." The ruling didn't reverse the myriad funeral-protest restrictions that states have imposed, and it still permits governments to reasonably regulate the time, place and manner of public speech.
Still, Westboro attorney and church member Margie J. Phelps said Wednesday that the ruling would embolden challenges to funeral protest restrictions. Incited by the church's picketing, more than 40 states — including Kansas, California, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, Texas and Washington — have enacted such laws.
Kansas, for instance, prohibits any "public demonstration" within 150 feet of the entrance to a funeral service, while Florida prohibits disturbing military funerals specifically.
"All of those are ill-designed and completely unconstitutional," Phelps said in a telephone interview. "There's going to be all sorts of appealing."
After first taking time to "thank God and praise his reign," Phelps said she wasn't surprised by the court's decision, although she voiced particular satisfaction in the strength of Roberts' majority opinion.
Few elected officials would have been likely to reach the same opinion.
Forty-two senators, including the respective leaders of the Democrats and Republicans, as well as the attorneys general in 48 states, had urged the court to oppose the church. The politically potent American Legion and Veterans of Foreign War likewise had sought to crimp the protests, with VFW National Commander Richard L. Eubank saying Wednesday that he was "greatly disappointed" with the ruling.
"Westboro's funeral picketing is certainly hurtful and its contribution to public discourse may be negligible," Roberts acknowledged in his 15-page majority opinion. "But ... speech cannot be restricted simply because it is upsetting or arouses contempt."
Justice Samuel Alito dissented, saying free speech shouldn't be "a license for the vicious verbal assault that occurred in this case."
In 2007, a Pennsylvania jury had slapped Westboro with a $10.9 million judgment for its demonstration at the March 2006 funeral of Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder. Snyder died March 3, 2006, in Iraq's Anbar province.
The church members didn't know Snyder or his father, Albert, but seven of them traveled from Kansas to Maryland to demonstrate. They stood outside the Roman Catholic church where the services were held, holding signs with messages such as "Thank God for Dead Soldiers," "God Hates Fags" and "You're Going to Hell." One sign depicted two men engaged in anal intercourse.
Albert Snyder didn't see the signs until a television news account later that night. He also found a church-penned "epic" on the Internet that denounced his son. During the subsequent trial, he testified tearfully that Westboro's protest signs had tortured him and "tarnished the memory of my son's last hour on earth."
Snyder and his attorneys decried the ruling Wednesday afternoon, with attorney Craig Trebilcock saying that "states and even Congress" should get busy enacting legislation to protect military funerals.
We'll "Such laws may lessen the harm these people from Kansas inflict on those who simply want to bury their children with dignity," Trebilcock said.
Westboro Baptist Church members, who largely belong to the extended Phelps family, maintain that the 9/11 terrorist attacks and what followed reflect God's wrath on the United States. They also believe that God led the nation into wars as further punishment, and that the soldiers are dying because of America's sins.
Although the church's protest targeted a funeral, the scene of a family's private grief, the court noted that the church's picket signs "plainly (related) to broad issues of interest to society at large." The picketing itself was conducted under police supervision 1,000 feet away from the church.
"Westboro believes that America is flawed," Roberts wrote. "Many Americans might feel the same about Westboro ... (but) we cannot react to (Snyder's) pain by punishing the speaker."
David Rocah, a staff attorney with the Maryland office of the American Civil Liberties Union, predicted that the opinion would have little bearing on state laws. Instead, he said, the ruling's importance is in protecting provocative and unpopular speakers from lawsuits based on alleged infliction of emotional distress.
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
McClatchy Newspapers 2011