Funeral protesting Westboro Baptist wins on appeal

Daily Record, Maryland/September 24, 2009

The $5 million verdict against the Westboro Baptist Church, the fundamentalist sect from Kansas that has attracted national media attention for picketing at military funerals, has been reversed.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond overturned a Baltimore jury's award to Albert Snyder for the emotional distress he suffered when members of the Phelps family picketed his Marine son's funeral in 2006.

"[W]e are constrained to agree that these signs - 'America is Doomed,' 'God Hates the USA/Thank God for 9/11,' 'Pope in Hell,' 'Fag Troops,' 'Semper Fi Fags,' 'Thank God for Dead Soldiers,' 'Don't Pray for the USA,' 'Thank God for IEDs,' 'Priests Rape Boys' and 'God Hates Fags' - are entitled to First Amendment protection," Judge Robert B. King wrote Thursday for the federal appeals court.

The church believes God is punishing tolerance for homosexuality in the United States by allowing American soldiers to die in the Middle East. Snyder was the first to sue it for picketing a funeral.

"We're extremely thankful that Albert Snyder filed that lawsuit and that the judge and the jury violated their oaths in rendering that verdict two years ago because that's what really exploded this message … around the world," said Rachel Hockenbarger, one of Fred W. Phelps Sr.'s 13 children and a lawyer at the family firm. "We never had any doubt that when an appeals court actually looked at the decision and what happened in that case that it would be overturned."

Sean E. Summers, who has represented Snyder pro bono, said he knew the case would be a candidate for Supreme Court consideration regardless of which way the appellate court ruled.

"There's never been crazy people running around harassing people at funeral before," he said. "We knew there was no precedent in this particular area so we knew the court could come down either way."

"The real unfortunate part is that it leaves grieving families helpless if this is the law of the land that you can harass people at funerals," Summers said.

Shirley L. Phelps-Roper, Hockenbarger's sister and a defendant in the case, said Thursday's ruling "doesn't let anybody off the hook," referring to legislative efforts to outlaw funeral protests.

Phelps-Roper, who was protesting in Brooklyn on Thursday, said the stock market crash and foreclosure crisis were results of God's wrath.

Matthew Snyder, 20, was killed when the vehicle whose gun he was manning flipped over near Iraq's border with Syria in March 2006, his father said. The defendants and four of Phelps-Roper's children traveled from their Topeka compound to Westminster, where the funeral was held at St. John's Catholic Church.

Albert Snyder contended the protest interfered with his grieving process and exacerbated his depression and diabetes. The jury returned a $10.9 million verdict on Oct. 31, 2007, which the judge reduced in February 2008.

The appeal drew lots of legal interest, with the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression and the ACLU submitting briefs in support of the Westboro Baptist Church and a Georgetown University Law Center professor writing in support of the plaintiff.

Even though Westboro has said God hates the ACLU, Deborah A. Jeon, legal director of the ACLU of Maryland, said the appellate holding was correct.

"We all can probably agree that this is one of those difficult cases where it can be hard to stand up for principle," she said.

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