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Military-funeral protest case goes to jury

Members of the Westboro Baptist Church, Noah Phelps-Roper, 8 (red jacket) and his brother Gabriel, 12, protest the "fag infested U.S. Navy" outside of the U.S. Naval Academy.
Members of the Westboro Baptist Church, Noah Phelps-Roper, 8 (red jacket) and his brother Gabriel, 12, protest the "fag infested U.S. Navy" outside of the U.S. Naval Academy. Dennis Drenner / MCT

BALTIMORE — Albert Snyder removed his glasses and sobbed Tuesday as he watched a video showing the signs that were displayed at the funeral of his 20-year-old son, Matthew.

"Thank God for dead soldiers" and "You're going to hell," two of them read. They were the work of members of Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., which routinely pickets military funerals.

In a somber courtroom in Baltimore, jurors heard emotional closing arguments Tuesday before beginning to deliberate whether to award Albert Snyder financial damages. The jury will continue deliberating Wednesday morning. Snyder contends that church members invaded his privacy and caused him severe emotional distress. His lawyers said he couldn't grieve properly and became depressed after protesters showed up at his son's funeral in Maryland in March 2006.

"You can punish them for what they did," Sean Summers, Snyder's attorney, told the nine jurors. Snyder is seeking an unspecified amount of compensatory and punitive damages.

Summers said the behavior of the Fred Phelps Sr. family, which founded the fundamentalist evangelical church, is "offensive, shocking, extreme and outrageous in any context, but especially at a funeral." He described them as a "71-person cult" that terrorized the Snyder family.

Jonathan Katz, an attorney for the Phelpses, said the funeral was a public event and reminded jurors that the First Amendment protects unpopular speech and religious groups.

"If they're not permitted to have their views, where's it stop?" he asked.

The Phelpses said they protested at Snyder's funeral because he was a member of the military, defending a country that they said has institutionalized sodomy. Church members preach an anti-gay message, saying homosexuals will go to hell because they're not following the word of God. They referred to the Roman Catholic Church, of which the Snyders are members, as a "pedophile machine."

Katz noted that Snyder had given media interviews regarding his son's death and the funeral procession route included supportive schoolchildren. He said there was a "competition for the cameras," adding: "This is a media event. This is a very public funeral."

While the Phelpses have picketed at more than 30,000 events in the last 17 years, the Snyder case marks the first lawsuit involving their activities at a military funeral to go to trial.

Summers told jurors that the Phelps family had stolen the dignity and respect of Matthew Snyder's funeral for "illogical, insane" reasons.

"They took their circus to Matt's funeral," he said.

He said the Phelpses had every right to air their religious views, but he added: "They can keep it in Topeka."

Katz told jurors that Albert Snyder had seen the signs while riding in a limousine to the funeral but that they were so far away from the church he couldn't even read them. He said Snyder had complicated his troubles by watching television coverage after the funeral, then searching the Internet for stories about his son.

"He was able to turn off the message," Katz said.

Summers said the defendants in the case — Phelps, who founded the church in 1955, and two of his daughters — "kicked Al Snyder while he was down." Snyder will have to live with the memories of the protest for the rest of his life, he said.

"They terrorize people, and in particular they terrorized Mr. Snyder," Summers said.

Katz said the Phelpses weren't out to win any popularity contests but were driven by sincerely held religious beliefs that called on them to spread their version of the Gospel. He said their message wasn't specifically directed at the Snyders, noting that the Phelpses believe that all people will go to hell unless they repent. He said the Phelpses went to military funerals to put a human face on their message.

He dismissed Summers' claim that the Westboro church is a cult. He said members' children attended public schools, ate at restaurants and went to movies.

"That's not a cult," he said. "A cult is isolated."