WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court is entering an emotionally charged dispute between the grieving father of a Marine who died in Iraq and the anti-gay protesters who picket military funerals with inflammatory messages like “Thank God for dead soldiers.”
The court agreed Monday to consider whether the protesters’ message, no matter how provocative or upsetting, is protected by the First Amendment or limited by the competing privacy and religious rights of the mourners.
The justices will hear an appeal from a Marine’s father to reinstate a $5 million verdict against the protesters after they picketed outside his son’s funeral in Maryland four years ago. Members of a Kansas-based church have picketed military funerals to spread their belief that U.S. deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq are punishment for the nation’s tolerance of homosexuality.
The funeral protest dispute was one of three cases the court said it would hear in the fall. The others involve whether parents can sue drug makers when their children suffer serious side effects from vaccine and NASA’s background checks on contract employees.
The protest lawsuit stemmed from picketing by members of the fundamentalist Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., outside the funeral for Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder in Westminster, Md. Snyder died in March 2006 when his Humvee overturned.
The funeral was one of many that have been picketed by Westboro pastor Fred Phelps and other members of his church.
Signs carried by church members read, “America is Doomed,” “God Hates the USA/Thank God for 9/11,” “Priests Rape Boys” and “Thank God for IEDs,” a reference to the roadside bombs that have killed many U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Snyder’s father, Albert, sued Phelps, his daughters and the church and won a verdict of more than $11 million for emotional distress and invasion of privacy. The judge reduced the amount to $5 million, but a federal appeals court threw out the verdict altogether.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the signs contained “imaginative and hyperbolic rhetoric” protected by the First Amendment.