Church fails to quash father's lawsuit

The Examiner, Baltimore/June 7, 2007
By Kelsey Volkmann

A federal judge rejected a funeral-picketing church's second attempt to dismiss a defamation lawsuit filed by the father of a Westminster Marine one year ago this week.

U.S. District Judge Richard Bennett on Monday denied a motion to dismiss the case filed in April by Rebekah Phelps-Davis and Shirley Phelps-Roper, two daughters of the Rev. Fred Phelps, founder of Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan.

The daughters argued that "ultimately in order to determine the outcome of this case, the court or jury would have to determine whose religious viewpoint is right," according to their motion.

But Bennett countered in his opinion that "when a civil dispute … can be decided without resolving an ecclesiastical controversy, a civil court may properly exercise jurisdiction."

Church members held inflammatory signs, such as "Thank God for Dead Soldiers," outside the March 2006 funeral for Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, and then criticized his parents on their Web site, saying they had "raised [Matthew] for the devil," according to the lawsuit filed June 5, 2006, by Matthew's father, Albert Snyder, of York, Pa.

The church claims that the death of American servicemen and women in Iraq is God's punishment for the country's tolerance of homosexuality.

This litigation has national implications because it could drain the church's financial resources so it could no longer protest, said Snyder's lawyer, Sean Summers.

"It will also set precedent, as well," he said. "Other people will be able to use this case as a sword."

Fred Phelps raised issues similar to those of his daughters when he tried to get the lawsuit dropped last fall.

Although the two daughters were added as defendants, the judge maintained the same trial date of Oct. 22 – to the relief of Albert Snyder, said Summers, who recently held a deposition with Tim Phelps, one of Fred's sons appointed to speak on behalf of the church.

"One thing that was crystal clear is that they, Phelps and his crew, have no remorse for anything they did, even though they acknowledge that the family could be hurt by the protests," Summers said.

"They freely admit that the only reason they protest at funerals is to command an audience. It has nothing to do with the individual and really they only care that it brings lots of local media," he said. "When Phelps and his crew show up, it turns into a three-ring circus."

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