April 2011 Church & State | AU Bulletin

The U.S. Supreme Court, in an 8-1 ruling, has upheld Westboro Baptist Church’s free speech right to picket near the funerals of soldiers. The lawsuit, Snyder v. Phelps, arose from a protest at the funeral of Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew A. Snyder, who died in Iraq. The Rev. Fred Phelps and other members of Westboro Baptist picketed near the service holding up signs that said “God Hates Fags,” and “Pray for More Dead Soldiers.” (The small Topeka-based congregation believes God is punishing America for tolerating homosexuality and has picketed hundreds of funerals with such signs.) Albert Snyder, the soldier’s father, sued the protesters. He won a jury award that was later overturned by an appeals court. The Supreme Court on March 2 affirmed the decision of the appeals court. “Speech is powerful,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote for the majority. “It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and – as it did here – inflict great pain.”Under the First Amendment, Roberts said, “we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker.” The Constitution, he explained, protects “even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate.” In his lone dissent, Justice Sam Alito wrote, “At funerals, the emotional well-being of bereaved relatives is particularly vulnerable.… Allowing family members to have a few hours of peace without harassment does not undermine public debate.” A number of states have enacted laws creating buffer zones around funerals, and the high court’s Snyder decision does not address the constitutionality of that approach.