Funeral Protest Case Sparks ‘Supreme’ Anger

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Protestors gathered in Washington, D.C., Wednesday, as the Supreme Court took up a controversial case involving a religious group's offensive demonstration outside the funeral of a U.S. soldier killed in Iraq.

Westboro Baptist Church is known for its vocal protests at military funerals. But the case against the church has turned into a major test of free speech versus privacy, as a bereaved father stands against the Kansas church's provocative pastor Fred Phelps.

Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder was killed in an accident while serving in Iraq four years ago. At his funeral, protesters from Westboro Baptist held signs like "Thank God for Dead Soldiers," "You're Going to Hell" and "God Hates the USA."

"It was just a nightmare. They positioned themselves about 30 feet from the main entrance of the church and they held signs that said, 'God Hates You,' 'You're in Hell,' 'Semper Fi Fags,' recalled Al Snyder, Matthew's father.

Jordan Sekulow, the director of international operations for the American Center for Law and Justice, spoke with CBN News about the case and the issues it brings up.  The ACLJ has worked in numerous First Amendment cases like this.  Click play for his comments.

Snyder filed a lawsuit and was awarded $11 million for infliction of emotional distress. But a federal court threw out the verdict, saying the church members' freedom of speech rights were violated.

Now, the Supreme Court is hearing Snyder's appeal to restore $5 million of the initial judgment.

"Note to all -- when you have a private funeral, we will not be there. When you have a public funeral and you broadcast to the nation that that dead soldier is a hero and that God is blessing America, we will be there and tell you God is cursing America," Westboro Baptist Church attorney Margi Phelps said outside the court, Wednesday. "It is a curse for your young men and women to be coming home in body bags and if you want that to stop -- stop sinning."

Sean Summers, Snyder's attorney who's backed by 48 states, asked the justices to look beyond the speech issue.

"It's about harrassment, targeted harrassment at a private person's funeral. And with that (I hope for) confidence that they'll rule in our favor," he said.

Still, some are worried about the erosion of First Amendment rights and are backing the church, as difficult as that may be.

"Often the greatest triumphs for free speech comes in cases with the least sympathetic speakers," explained Jeff Rosen, a law professor at George Washington University.

A decision on the case may not come until next year.

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John Waage

John Waage

CBN News Sr. Editor

John Waage has covered politics and analyzed elections for CBN News since 1980, including primaries, conventions, and general elections. 

He also analyzes the convulsive politics of the Middle East.