To Marine's Father, Suit Is More Than Money

New York Times/November 2, 2007

Baltimore -- After a year and a half of anger, grief and legal maneuvering, the father of a marine killed in Iraq has said the success of his suit against a fundamentalist sect that picketed his son's funeral means more than the jury's $10.9 million damage award on Tuesday.

"If I can take whatever they have and stop them, good," said the father, Albert Snyder, 52, a salesman from York, Pa., whose son, Lance Cpl. Matthew A. Snyder, 20, was killed two months after arriving in Iraq in January 2006. "I was not motivated by money. I want to shut this church down, if you can call it a church. I call it a cult or a hate group. I sat in that courtroom for a week and a half and never once heard them say a good thing about God."

He added that he doubted he would ever collect the award.

Mr. Snyder said he had decided to sue the leaders of the sect, the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., for invasion of privacy and inflicting emotional distress two months after its members demonstrated at his son's funeral in March 2006 in Westminster, Md.

The church has 60 members, mostly related to its founder, the Rev. Fred W. Phelps Sr. Many members have picketed military officials and soldiers' funerals because they say the soldiers' deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan are God's punishment for the United States' tolerating homosexuality.

Mr. Snyder said he hoped that other military families whose relatives have been picketed would take his victory in Federal District Court here as a signal to step forward.

"I had seen them do it to another family," Mr. Snyder said, "and it brought back all the bad memories. I don't even know how I got the courage to do it. I was like the papa bear: 'You can do anything to me, but don't try to do it to my children.' Those people tarnished Matt's coffin."

Mr. Snyder said his only hope was to cripple the church financially.

After the verdict, church leaders told Judge Richard D. Bennett that they had $1 million in assets, said Mr. Snyder's lawyer, Sean E. Summers.

"Even if we get $1 million and put them into bankruptcy," Mr. Summers said, "I think Mr. Snyder will be pleased."

The lawyer for Westboro Baptist, Jonathan L. Katz, said an appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, in Richmond, Va., would be filed in 30 days.

"It's clear the First Amendment permits the church to do what they did," Mr. Katz said. "They used very harsh words and they used very harsh signs, but they stood 1,000 feet away from the funeral. Anyone who wants to go out and protest should be very afraid now."

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