Supreme Court vs. EVERYBODY

13 10 2010

The first amendment is what allows us, as journalists, to do our jobs.

Freedom of speech, religion, the press, and expression are also what allow the Westboro Baptist Church to picket the private funerals of fallen US soldiers. 

At least it does for now.


Albert Snyder / AP Photo (Kaster)

Last week, a years-long debate between Albert Snyder, father of the late Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder,  and WBC founder Fred Phelps went before the Supreme Court.

Previously, a lower court ordered the WBC to pay Snyder $11 million for intentional infliction of emotional distress, only to have the appellate court overturn the ruling- and cite Snyder responsible for $16,500 of the WBC’s court costs.

Robert Barnes summarized in The Washington Post’s coverage of the issue, “It creates an only-in-America quandary: whether the freedom of speech is so powerfully woven in the nation’s fabric that it protects one family’s right to vile and hurtful protest at the very moment of another family’s most profound grief.”

Represented by Margie Phelps, first-daughter of the WBC and one of a few family members still allowed to practice law; the church claims to be “putting the nation on notice about the Almighty’s wrath,” because the “nation’s tolerance of homosexuality has drawn God’s condemnation.” 

Pastor Fred Phelps / AP Photo (Zalubowski)

Fred Phelps seems pretty confident in Margie’s abilities, and in the High Court’s support of their methods.  “The speech is protected,” he says, “They’re not going to give up the whole body of American law over one teared-up moron.” 

The Snyder family are just one of the estimated 200 families targeted by the WBC and robbed of what Al Snyder describes as his “one chance to bury my son in peace.”  In 2006, instead of a intimate family gathering to mourn their loss, the Snyders were met with a “circus” of protestors (with and against the WBC), media reporters and a SWAT team.

David Kerley, of ABC News, reported from Washington last week that “experts say they [the Court] could rule for the protestors- A strong statement in favor of the first amendment.  What are the options if they rule for the families, the grieving families?  Potentially that you can’t protest at funerals, or against private citizens.”

Members of the Westboro Baptisit Church incessantly protest every issue- from abortion to homosexuality to the War on Terror- in every forum- from clinics to university campuses (like ours last year) to Arlington National Cemetary.

Twisting biblical texts and repurposing the lyrics to well-known songs by Bates & Ward, Black Sabbath, and Lady Gaga– the WBC never seem to be at a loss for how to creatively convey their disgraceful, hatefilled messages.


It is particularly striking to me the fact that these individuals will drag the American flag, the very symbol of our nation’s freedom, on the ground and celebrate the deaths of American soldiers, who work every day to preserve that freedom.  In the video above, key members of Phelps’ organization scoff at the thought, but it’s a fact: the Westboro Baptist Church can act out in such a way, preach what and where they please, because decades of military tradition have maintained the standards set forth by the US Constitution.


Whether this makes me naive or ignorant, I don’t know, but I do believe that there are legitimate cases where freedoms- specifically speech- should be limited by the powers that be.  For me, this is definitely one of those times.

That said, it would be a challenging feat to conjure a finite set of standards or circumstances under which speech, or any right, is to be stunted.

The Supreme Court rulings in Schenck vs. US (1919) and Brandenburg vs. Ohio (1969) come to mind.  These cases helped to establish that speech may be limited if it aims to “incite imminent lawless action.”  The adage “You can’t yell ‘fire!’ in a crowded theater,” stems from the Schenck ruling.

I think that causing a media crush and police hoopla at the burial of private citizen is a solid example of inciting a lawless action.   Whether they acknowledge it or not, the WBC have a political agenda, and they will have accomplished it if the Supreme Court rules in their favor.


I absolutely believe that everyone in this country has the right to follow his or her own religious practice- however, I do not believe that one man’s chosen system should be the foundation of a law that influences another people’s lives. One person being “pro-life” or “anti-gay” should not dicate in a stranger’s life the right to seek out an abortion or commit to a same-sex partner in marriage.

As my stance applies to this situation:  The rights and beliefs of the WBC do not supersede those of the Snyders, or any family of a fallen soldier.

I think that Phelps’ belief in God smiting the American people because of the nation’s collaborative sins, has no place nor bearing on the Snyder’s private burial mass for their son. Freedom of religion, to me, means that no one creed is superior/inferior to another.


I am disturbed by the fact that this so called religious organization has all the makings of a CULT.

Barnes divulges some details about the average WBC service, which consists of about 75 people- “only one of which is not related by blood.”  Their doors are locked to outsiders. 

Young Protestor / AP Photo

Shirley Phelps-Roper, another of Fred Phelps’ children active in the WBC, admits that she has a daughter-in-law and grandchild she’s never met. Three of her siblings left the family, and one changed her name.  “When they reach the age of maturity, they either stay in the church or just go.”

Many people who have encountered the WBC are pariculary touched by the fact that children, as young as 6 or 8, hold signs and shout the bigoted dribble Phelps teaches.

I am not the most spitiually-savvy person, I do not attend church regularly (I’m a ‘weddings & funerals only’ kind of parishioner)- but it is my understanding that most facilities would welcome a newcomer, and be excited to include them in the services.  Most devouts would not overlook or snub a new face in the “Peace Be With You” handshaking.

Because of this, I hesitate to truly accept that the WBC is in fact a church.

I know it is possible to find a piece of scripture and interpret it in such a way to support  your mission(s), but I cannot fathom anyone sitting in their home office looking for ways to use the word of the Almighty to hurt others. Unfamiliar as I am with the Bible, I can safely deduce that those pages were not meant to be used in such a manner.


*NOTE*  Link identifying the Westboro Baptist Church is routed to the Wikipedia page describing the group. I refuse to contribute any “hits” to their personal website.

Additionally, I will update as progress is made in the Snyder v. Phelps suit.  *TEAM SNYDER*




One response

3 03 2011
Deplorable Behavior of Heinous People A’Ok in US « Marshall Lately

[…] promised to follow up on this case in a previous blog, so it is with great disappointment that I write the […]

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