Phelps’ Vile Words Test First Amendment

What can I say? I’m a tourist for these kinds of places. Before attending Ted Haggard’s church in Colorado Springs on Sunday, I visited the home of Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church last week in Topeka, Kansas last week. By the way, it’s been described by the media as a compound. It’s actually a city block of fenced-in homes in a rather nice residential neighborhood with lovely landscaping. It’s so nice that at first, I figured I was at the wrong place. But then I saw the giant banner on the second-story house which serves as the church, “GodhatesAmerica.com” and the vandalized garage door with painted over, but still visible, penis and scrotum.

Phelps and his church of hate (they’d proudly agree with that description) are the defendants in Snyder v. Phelps, a First Amendment case that will be presented before the US Supreme Court in October. While most readers are no doubt familiar with Phelps and his brand of crazy, the Citizen Media Law Project has a good overview of the case here, which is still worth reading and is guaranteed to infuriate anyone with a beating heart:

The Westboro Baptist Church is a fundamentalist Christian church that contends that God kills soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan as punishment for America’s tolerance of homosexuality and for the presence of gays in the US military. The church operates a number of Web sites, including www.godhatesfags.com, on which it disseminates its rabidly anti-homosexual views. The church has gained notoriety for staging protests at the funerals of US soldiers in order to draw attention to its message.

Albert Snyder’s son, Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder, was a US Marine who was killed on March 3, 2006 during active service in Iraq. His body was returned to the United States, and his family held a funeral for him on March 10, 2006 in Westminster, Maryland.

Westboro Baptist Church pastor and founder Fred Phelps and members of his congregation picketed Matthew’s funeral, holding signs expressing anti-gay, anti-American, and anti-Catholic slogans, including “God hates you” and “You’re going to hell.” Westboro Baptist Church also posted an essay on its Web site entitled “The Burden of Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew A. Snyder.” In the essay, statements indicated that Albert and his wife “raised [Matthew] for the devil,” “RIPPED that body apart and taught Matthew to defy his Creator, to divorce, and to commit adultery,” “taught him how to support the largest pedophile machine in the history of the entire world, the Roman Catholic monstrosity,” and “taught Matthew to be an idolator.”

Snyder sued and in 2007 a jury handed down a $10.9 million award against Westboro for invasion of privacy (intrusion upon seclusion) and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The figure was later cut to $5 million. Phelps appealed and in 2008, the Fourth Circuit issued an opinion reversing the judgment of the district court and vacating the jury award. The appellate court found the Phelps’ speech (both website and picketing) were protected by the First Amendment.

So that’s where things are today and the Supreme Court will hear arguments on October 6. That the words of the Phelps and their tiny Westboro Baptist Church are vile, disgusting and insanely cruel to poor Albert Snyder and his family is not debatable. Clearly, that’s been established. My heart breaks for the man for what he has endured in the past three years. Rather, the issue here is whether those vile, disgusting, and insanely cruel words are protected speech under the First Amendment.

I had brought along my video camera in order to get some thoughts from the clan on the upcoming case and their thoughts on the First Amendment.

Phelps’ daughter Margie Phelps — also the attorney who will be presenting arguments before the Supreme Court — calls Snyder a crybaby.

Shirley Phelps-Roper, the primary spokeswoman for the church, explains that God crashed the stock market because of Snyder v. Phelps. She also makes a point about Proposition 8 with which, surprisingly, I agree.

And finally, Phelps-Roper adds that the BP oil spill is also punishment for the case against them and explains to me how oil is formed.

laurilebo@gmail.com'

Lauri Lebo is the author of The Devil in Dover: Dogma v. Darwin in Small-Town America, a book about the 2005 First Amendment trial of Kitzmiller v. Dover in which intelligent design was ruled creationism.