Death + the Law Death Ethics

Westboro Baptist Church Wins Funeral Protest Case

Supreme Court Rules First Amendment Protects Westboro Church’s Right to Picket Funerals
Robert Barnes, The Washington Post (March 02, 2011)
A nearly unanimous Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that the First Amendment protects even hurtful speech about public issues and upheld the right of a fringe church to protest near military funerals.


Justices Rule for Protesters at Military Funerals
Adam Liptak, The New York Times (March 02, 2011)
The First Amendment protects hateful protests at military funerals, the Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday in an 8-1 decision.


Supreme Court of the United States
Snyder v. Phelps decision

For people who read United States Supreme Court decisions, the most important thing to do with any new ruling is immediately flip to the second or third page and look for the verdict. Then you can go back and and actually digest the text.

So, without much further ado, here is what the Supreme Court said about the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) and its funeral protests:

Held: The First Amendment shields Westboro from tort liability for its picketing in this case.

We’ve been following the Westboro Baptist Church case here on the Death Reference Desk and you can read all of that coverage here.

In brief, the Westboro Baptist Church, which is based in Topeka, Kansas was sued by Albert Snyder after its members protested outside his son’s military funeral in Maryland. This was in 2006. Snyder’s son was a US Marine and the WBC, led by Fred Phelps and his daughter Shirley, appeared with signs which proclaimed “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” and other, similar statements. The WBC is also known as the group God Hates Fags and fervently believes that soldiers are dying in Iraq and Afghanistan because America has embraced homosexuality. God is showing his displeasure with America by letting the deaths happen.

The case worked its way up and down the US Court system after Albert Snyder won an earlier case and was awarded millions of dollars in damages. Last October, the Supreme Court heard arguments from both sides.

I’m not surprised that the Supreme Court decided in the WBC’s favor, since the entire case was a classic First Amendment debate. I also understand the logic which the eight justices in the majority used, even if the majority decision written by Chief Justice John Roberts seems a bit forced. By this, I mean, that the Justices could have simply said that the WBC protests were allowed to be obnoxious and ridiculous because the First Amendment guaranteed that right.

Instead, the decision uses an array of legal points which really reach reach reach for legal justifications.

Ok. That’s a little unfair.

Adam Liptak, of the New York Times summarises:

Chief Justice Roberts wrote in the ruling that three factors required a ruling in favor of the church group. First, he said, its speech was on matters of public concern. While the messages on the signs carried by its members “may fall short of refined commentary,” the chief justice wrote, “the issues they highlight — the political and moral conduct of the United States and its citizens, the fate of our nation, homosexuality in the military and scandals involving the Catholic clergy — are matters of public import.”


Second, he wrote, the relationship between the church and the Snyders was not a private grudge.


Third, the members of the church “had the right to be where they were.” They were picketing on a public street 1,000 feet from the site of the funeral, they complied with the law and with instructions from the police, and they protested quietly and without violence.


Chief Justice Roberts suggested that the proper response to hurtful protests are general laws creating buffer zones around funerals and the like, rather than empowering of juries to punish unpopular speech.

So there you have it.

Funereal protests by the Westboro Baptist Church are protected by the First Amendment to the US Constitution. You can read an excerpt of Snyder v. Phelps here.

You can also read the full decision at the top of the page.

The lone dissenter, Justice Alito, built his dissent around empathy for the grieving families and their desire to be left alone during a funeral. He has a point but that does not mean individual states can create laws banning certain groups from protesting outside funerals.

And even though the WBC won this particular US Supreme Case, which is significant, it just means that anytime the Westboro Baptist Church shows up at a funeral with its handful of members the number of counter-protesters will be even larger.

Finally, the first sentence of the Snyder v. Phelps decision is, hands down, the best ever. It is a sentence that implicitly states, for both good and bad reasons, only in America:

For the past 20 years, the congregation of the Westboro Baptist Church has picketed military funerals to communicate its belief that God hates the United States for its tolerance of homosexuality, particularly in America’s military.

The Death Reference Desk will post any relevant updates on this story. It’s not going to disappear now. That’s for sure.

Death + the Law Death Ethics

Westboro Baptist Church Supreme Court Case

Anti-Gay Minister Shouldn’t Be Able To Intrude On Soldiers’ Funerals
Doug Gansler, The Washington Post (October 6, 2010)


Funeral Protesters Have A Free-Speech Right
Editorial Board, The Washington Post (October 6, 2010)


Westboro Baptist Church, Phelps Family Speak Out About Funeral-Protest Case
Ian Shapira, The Washington Post (October 6, 2010)


Court Considers Westboro Baptist Church’s Anti-Gay Protests At Military Funerals
Robert Barnes, The Washington (October 6, 2010)


Justices Hear Arguments In Funeral-Protest Case
Adam Liptak, The New York Times (October 07, 2010)


Lamentable Speech
Editorial Board, The New York Times (October 7, 2010)


Court Weighs Free Speech vs. Privacy At Funerals
Robert Barnes, The Washington Post (October 7, 2010)

A hardly definitive roundup of articles about Wednesday’s Supreme Court Case involving the Westboro Baptist Church and its funeral protests.

This NewsHour television report is really good too.

Death + the Law Death Ethics

US Supreme Court Hears Funeral Protest Case on Wednesday

Westboro Baptist’s Funeral Protests Put Free Speech To Test
Michael Doyle, McClatchy Newspapers (October 1, 2010)


Supreme Court Term Offers Hot Issues and Future Hints
Adam Liptak, The New York Times (October 2, 2010)


Free speech: Westboro Church Supreme Court Case Tests First Amendment
Warren Richey, The Christian Science Monitor (October 2, 2010)

On Wednesday, October 6, the US Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in an important free speech and protest rights case. Death Ref has been covering this case for a while and you can read those previous posts here. In brief, the Westboro Baptist Church, which is based in Topeka, Kansas was sued by Albert Snyder after its members protested outside his son’s military funeral in Maryland. Snyder’s son was a US Marine and the Westboro Baptist Church, led by Fred Phelps and his daughter Shirley, protested outside the funeral with signs which proclaimed “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” and other, similar statements. The WBC is also known as the group God Hates Fags and fervently believes that soldiers are dying in Iraq and Afghanistan because America has embraced homosexuality, therefore God is letting the deaths happen.


The WBC’s theology is an island unto itself when it comes to its funeral protests but it has garnered a lot of attention over the years. It has also drawn the ire of people who don’t like the church at all.

Albert Snyder’s case has been working its way through courts for a few years now and the US Supreme Court faces a particularly difficult set of arguments. Warren Richey’s piece in the Christian Science Monitor does an excellent job of positioning the case within a broader historical context.

And it looks like this decision will be historic, in one way or another. The politics involved are making for odd mixes of both conservative and liberal thought. It is also really difficult to know how the Justices will respond during the oral arguments.

Keep checking back to Death Ref for updates.

Death + the Law Death Ethics

Update on Westboro Baptist Church Funeral Protests

Antigay Church can Protest Military Funerals, Judge Rules
Warren Richey, Christian Science Monitor (August 17, 2010)

Death Ref has been following the Westboro Baptists Church’s funeral protests since our start. In a nutshell, the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) protests outside funerals for veterans killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. The WBC claims (and has always claimed) that since America condones homosexuality God allows soldiers to die in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The logic is convoluted but the centerpiece of the WBC’s theology. As a result of these protests, which began in 2003 or so, many states passed laws which either banned funeral protests or ordered the WBC to stand at some distance away.


Last week, a federal judge decided that one of those laws (in Missouri) was unconstitutional, stating that it violated the protection of free speech. What I am waiting for is when the US Supreme Court hears a case about the WBC protests in October. It is really hard to tell what the politics of this case will do to the traditional liberal-conservative split. And it will be one of the few Supreme Court cases dealing with American funerals.

Per usual, Death Ref will keep everyone in the loop.

Death + the Law Death Ethics

Burying Dead Soldiers and Judging Free Speech

High Court: Justices to Consider ‘Funeral Protests’ in Free-Speech Case
Robert Barnes, Washington Post (May 31, 2010)

The Washington Post ran a really interesting article today on an upcoming US Supreme Court case involving freedom of speech and protests at funerals for dead soldiers. I expect that the story ran today because it is, afterall, Memorial Day and a good time to reflect on freedoms, liberties, and the people who died while in the US military. The Supreme Court is being asked to decide whether or not the Westboro Baptist Church, run by Fred Phelps, has a right to protest near soldiers’ funerals. What makes this case particularly complex is that the WBC protesters (which are never more than a handful) hold signs proclaiming their thanks for dead soldiers since God is punishing America for condoning homosexuality.

For years, the WBC has protested at all kinds of funerals under the “God Hates Fags” banner but it has really only been the soldiers’ funerals which drew the most ire. We’ve been covering this particular legal case on Death Ref and you can read those posts here: Father of Dead Soldier Ordered to Pay Up and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers”.

The case’s most provocative legal question is this: Will a majority of the US Supreme Court rule in favor of the Westboro Baptist Church, even though its tactics are almost universally despised? What are the limits of free speech in this situation? Can Albert Snyder (the father of dead Marine Matthew Snyder) sue the Westboro Baptist Church in order to stop its protest activities without violating the first Amendment to the US Constitution?

Robert Barnes, the reporter at the Washington Post explains:

…First Amendment specialists think Albert Snyder has a difficult case to prove to a court that has been particularly outspoken on government attempts to regulate speech and has accepted two privacy cases for the term that begins in the fall.


George Washington University law professor Daniel J. Solove, the author of “Understanding Privacy,” said he finds it “perplexing” that the justices took the case. The message of Phelps and his followers is “stupid and obnoxious,” Solove said, but seems to fit squarely into the kind of unpopular speech that the Constitution protects.


The church maintains that its protests are not aimed at the dead — there was no particular reason to select Matthew Snyder’s funeral for picketing — but at the actions of the living.


A sampling of the signs carried at Snyder’s 2006 funeral at St. John’s Catholic Church in Westminster, Md., included “God Hates the USA/Thank God for 9/11,” “Semper Fi Fags,” “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” and “Priests Rape Boys.” The demonstrators abided by the law and stayed away from the funeral itself.


Albert Snyder sued Phelps, and Snyder argued at trial that the demonstration invaded his privacy, caused emotional distress and violated his rights to free exercise of religion and peaceful assembly. He said a treatise posted on the church’s Web site specifically mentioned Matthew and his family.


A jury awarded Snyder more than $10 million, which was cut in half by the judge and then overturned by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Richmond. A three-judge panel said that although Phelps’s rhetoric was offensive, it was protected as speech concerning issues in the national debate.

The politics of this case are also compelling. A number of both conservative and liberal elected officials have joined together in support of the military families while simultaneously passing laws in about 40 US states banning (or severely curtailing) protests by the WBC. On the one hand, this is not particularly shocking. On the other hand, social conservatives do not necessarily disagree with the WBC’s anti-gay rhetoric and liberals have historically made the case for unpopular, protest speech.

And no matter where the WBC protests, the counter protests are usually much larger. Indeed, a Veterans motorcycle group called the Patriot Guard Riders attends soldiers’ funerals (but only if invited by the family) so that the next of kin is insulated from the protests. In the middle of all this is a funeral director trying to negotiate this moment in American cultural politics but then that’s nothing new.

So the questions remains open: What are the limits of free speech in this situation?

I think that it is also inevitable that this case will end up in the election politics of the autumn, which is too bad because the questions being raised are really important and not easily decided.

Sadly, it is the soldiers’ families who get caught up in the middle of this and at the end of the day I have a feeling that the impact on next of kin at the funerals will carry a great of weight with the Supreme Court.

As the Washington Post puts it:

Snyder said he was only vaguely aware of the protests at military funerals until the protest came to him. He still gets emotional recalling that day.

“All we wanted was a private funeral for my son,” he said. “They turned it into a three-ring circus.”

Death + the Law Death Ethics

Father of Dead Soldier Ordered to Pay Up

An update to our “God Hates Dead Soldiers” post. The family of dead Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder has been ordered to pay $16,510 in legal fees to Fred Phelps.

Interestingly, the case, which is to be heard by the Supreme Court, centers not on Phelp’s First Amendment rights, but rather “the complaint included claims for defamation, two counts of invasion of privacy (intrusion on seclusion and publicity given to private life), and intentional infliction of emotional distress.” (Citizen Media Law Project)

The judgment has sparked the outrage of Bill O’Reilly who has vowed to pay the Snyder family’s debt. Said O’Reilly,

“It’s obvious they were disturbing the peace by disrupting the funeral. They should have been arrested, but our system is so screwed up, so screwed up, that loons are allowed to run wild. Snyder is fighting the good fight, and he is taking his case to the Supreme Court as he should. We are behind him 100 percent.”

Hmmmm… not so sure I’d want Bill O’Reilly’s monied interests on my side.

Death + the Law Death Ethics

“Thank God for Dead Soldiers”

So says Fred Phelps. You may be familiar with Phelps and his hate-mongering followers—most of whom are actually his family members—because they have been making headlines for at least the past 20 years.

For the uninitiated, Fred Phelps is the founder and pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas. He is best known for his various anti-gay protests and placard-waving antics around the country, featuring such slogans as “God Hates Fags” and “Fags Die, God Laughs”, among other free speech protected hate bombs.

Earlier today, the Supreme Court decided that they will hear a case involving Phelps and the family of deceased soldier Matthew Snyder. In 2006, Phelps protested at Matthew Snyder’s funeral, claiming God hates America — and hence soldiers — because of our nation’s tolerance of homosexuality. One of the signs he and others waved had “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” plastered across it. The Snyder family sued and was awarded a judgement of $10.9 million dollars. However, last September, the U.S 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, overturned the decision on free speech grounds.

According to an article in today’s LA Times,

Snyder’s family appealed to the Supreme Court, saying the protests had “tarnished” their son’s funeral. “Matthew deserved better. A civilized society deserved better,” they said.

As Chris Weigant, of the Huffington Post points out, it is not so much about free speech per se, but rather, protected classes of speech such as religious and political speech.

It will be interesting to see what becomes of this case as it will test to what extent these classes are protected. Fred Phelps makes my skin crawl—as a librarian who supports the First Amendment—and as a human who finds the profanity of this man’s behavior repugnant. But ultimately, the case will come down to whether the Snyder family can claim damages in their case. According to the Citizen Media Law Project, the case centers on “defamation, invasion of privacy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.”