The visual of members of the Westboro Baptist Church spewing anti-gay rhetoric outside the U.S. Supreme Court earlier today was almost certainly bizarre for anyone who witnessed it, but the case for which the justices heard oral arguments raises some fundamental questions.
“I think the church of the Lord Jesus Christ got to stand in the highest court of the world and say that soldiers are dying for your sins and we’re committed to the proposition that Americans can say that and not be penalized,” said Margie Phelps, as Kerry Eleveld of The Advocate reported.
The facts in Snyder v. Phelps stand for themselves—Fred Phelps and a handful of other WBC members held anti-gay signs as they protested outside 20-year-old Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder’s funeral in Westminster, Md., in March 2006. Albert Snyder, Matthew’s father, sued the Topeka, Kan.,-based church for emotional damages. A lower court awarded Albert Snyder $5 million, but a federal appeals court in Richmond, Va., overturned the decision.
(The story is the top story on WJLA’s 6 p.m. newscast here in Washington, D.C., as I write this blog.) It goes without saying the Snyder family has suffered unimaginable heartbreak over their son’s death, and the WBC’s antics have only exacerbated this anguish. Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler described Snyder v. Phelps as “fundamentally about wrongs and the law’s imperfect ability to redress them” in an op-ed published in today’s Washington Post. The newspaper, however, editorialized differently.
“If Westboro’s vitriol is deemed unworthy of First Amendment protection and a private citizen can sue to silence the church—or shut it down—then everyone’s rights will be eroded and made dependent on the sensibilities of others,” the Post wrote.
The First Amendment guarantees all Americans—including Westboro members who choose to spew their odious vitriol—are entitled to freedom of speech. The primary takeaway from Snyder v. Phelps, however, should remain anyone who opposes the church can exercise their constitutional right to counter their odious messages with those of love and acceptance.
The media scrum outside the U.S. Supreme Court earlier today.