The Westboro Baptist Church won a significant victory Wednesday when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of its right to promote what its church members call a “broad-based message” on public matters such as wars.
The Topeka, Kansas-based church led by pastor Fred Phelps is notorious for its angry, anti-gay protests, “God hates fags” signs, and picketing at funerals of deceased U.S. military personnel.
This case was seen by legal experts as an issue testing the competing constitutional limits of free speech and privacy.
“Speech is powerful. It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and — as it did here — inflict great pain,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote.
“On the facts before us, we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker.”
In the 8-1 vote, Justice Samuel Alito was the lone dissenter.
The case that touched off the issue and this ruling began when Albert Snyder, the a father of U. S. Marine Matthew Snyder, who was killed in combat in Iraq in 2006, sued Westboro, saying those protests amounted to targeted harassment and an intentional infliction of emotional distress on the families of deceased service members.
Select members from the church decided to protest outside the Westminster, Maryland, church where Matthew Snyder’s funeral was being held.
Albert Snyder won $11 million during that first trial, later reduced by a judge to $5 million which the church appealed.
Phelps and other family members who make up most of the Westboro Baptist Church have picketed numerous U. S. military funerals to draw attention to their view that U.S. causalities in the wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq are “God’s punishment for the nation’s tolerance of fags,” according to church spokesperson Shirley Phelps-Roper.
Westboro pickets display signs saying, “Thank God for dead soldiers,” “You’re Going to Hell,” “God Hates the USA/Thank God for 9/11,” as well as signs with anti-gay slurs.
The decision this morning by the Supreme Court upholds the ruling by the federal appellate court in Richmond, Virginia, which threw out the $5 million judgment saying said the Constitution shielded the church members from liability.
The Westboro church is not affiliated with the Baptist denomination or any other Baptist church. According to news reports, almost all of its members — fewer than 100 — are related to founder Fred Phelps either by blood or marriage.