Tuesday, March 08, 2011

TOP STORY >> Hate speech is protected, court decides

Leader executive editor

(The U.S. Supreme Court last week upheld the right of Westboro Baptist Church members to demonstrate at military funerals. This column about the Kansas-based group, which demonstrated in Beebe nearly five years ago, appeared on Aug. 2, 2006.)

Members of Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., were again busy this week picketing funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq, but lawsuits filed by families who have lost their loved ones could stop the church group from taunting grieving relatives.

Church members, who believe God is killing our soldiers in Iraq because America tolerates homosexuals, have traveled to dozens of cities for the funerals of U.S. soldiers — not to mourn with the families but to mock them.

At least one grieving father, Albert Snyder, has filed suit against the church, which he accuses of invading his family’s privacy and “emotionally damaging” the grieving family when the group protested back in March at the funeral of Snyder’s son, Matthew, at St. John’s Catholic Church in Westminster, Md.

The Kansas church’s Web site said the elder Snyder taught Matthew “to defy his Creator, to divorce and to commit adultery” and “raised him for the devil.”

Snyder’s lawsuit claims the Westboro demonstrators violated his privacy, inflicted emotional pain and defamed him. Snyder wants the demonstrations to stop and is seeking general and punitive damages against the church.

But Jonathan Phelps, whose father started Westboro Baptist Church, says he knows nothing about the lawsuit. Anyway, he told us, no court will stop him from exercising his right of free speech and religion.

You remember Phelps: He and his family came down here in June and picketed the funeral of Army Specialist Bobby West of Beebe. Hundreds of motorcyclists calling themselves the Patriot Guard shielded mourners from about a dozen Westboro Church members, who stood across the road from First Baptist Church of Beebe and held up signs that said “God Hates Fags” and “Thank God for IEDs.”

It was an improvised-explosive device that killed West, 23, on a road near Baghdad.

We asked Phelps this week to give us his reaction to the lawsuit against Westboro, although he insists his church has not been served papers. If he is sued, he suggested he could file a countersuit, as he did in Kansas, where authorities tried to stop his picketing.

“As a matter of law, Westboro Baptist Church cannot invade the privacy of any person or group while standing out on a public sidewalk and holding signs in the air, singing songs and preaching,” Phelps e-mailed us on Monday.

“If you use the example of the ‘funeral’ you were in attendance at in Beebe, Arkansas, which is typical of the events we see (except normally larger), we didn’t invade that ‘funeral’ any more than you did, the patriot fart guard did, and the extras lining the highway did. The only difference is the message that we communicated.”

Phelps is clear about the teachings of his church and why members are picketing at soldiers’ funerals.

“WBC and her members sincerely and fervently hold and publish the Scripturally-based viewpoint that God is punishing America for institutionalizing proud sin (homosexuality, divorce/remarriage, adultery, fornication, idolatry, greed, etc.), including by killing American soldiers on the battle fields in the Middle East.

“We believe God is cursing America (a fact hard to dispute with soldiers’ bodies coming home in little pieces in bags); you pretend to believe God is blessing America; that religious debate is supposed to occur in the heart and on the streets, not in the courts, the jury rooms, chief executive suites of the states and federal government and legislative chambers.”

Phelps, who is a lawyer, then sounded an even more ominous note, suggesting he might sue if reports of a lawsuit against his church are inaccurate:

“If they have a legitimate cause of action against WBC, you better be real careful what you write about it in your column; but you know their claim is cow manure.

“The mask of ‘invasion of privacy’ is unoriginal and banal. The result of any such lawsuit would be that it would not survive motions to dismiss and/or motions for summary judgment.

“Furthermore, such action would be an abuse of process if filed and served, be malicious prosecution as without probable cause and with malice, and probably be a violation of the Civil Rights Act as a conspiracy to abuse governmental power to violate the civil rights of WBC members; and any such vain attempts will be met with vigorous defenses and affirmative suits wherein all attorneys’ fees and expenses would be recovered with interest and with enhancements.”

Phelps knows the law and is confident he can win in court again.

“The government in Kansas has been down this road with us, trying to use government power to stop our preaching, the result of which they have paid hundreds of thousands of taxpayers’ dollars in awards of our attorneys’ fees. As a memorial, I keep copies of the checks in the $100,000s hanging on my wall.

“It is not lawful for any lawyer to pretend to sue us in court and thereby abuse government power to try and get the government to side with them and declare that their religious view called ‘American patriotism,’ ‘God bless America’ and ‘God loves everyone’ as the official religion of this country.

“These soldiers’ funerals have become public platforms where various groups (veterans, military personnel, media, politicians, community members, etc.) conduct political patriotic pep rallies declaring their religious views on how God is dealing with America.”

He’s studied the law books and says the law is on his side.

“They became public platforms because the family vigorously pursued that avenue to make them public platforms—and thereby make the dead soldier and their family public figures; they literally thrust themselves and their dead relative into that spotlight and cannot complain when they don’t like the spin Gospel preachers put on the events.

“WBC members have an absolute right to unfettered access to that same platform to publish a counter religious view.

The law is well-established that the First Amendment prohibits government preferring one religion over another, and mandates the government always be neutral on matters of religion,” he continued.

He’ll take his case to the Supreme Court if necessary.

“The United States Supreme Court reiterated the following long-settled legal principles: Government cannot take action which aids one religion, aids all religions, or prefers one religion over another. In the relationship between man and religion, the government is firmly committed to a position of neutrality. The clearest command of the Establishment Clause is that one religious denomination cannot be officially preferred over another. The Establishment Clause prohibits the favoring or disfavoring of one religion over others.”

In other words, even the kookiest religion is protected under the Constitution, even if its members act in bad taste.

“In any event,” Phelps promises, “the Westboro Baptist Church is not going to stop preaching this message—America is Doomed—in a timely, topical manner, and the ultimate outcome would be that the Westboro Baptist Church would triumph wonderfully.

“In the meantime, the efforts these fools engage in to attempt to stop our preaching has had one primary result, to wit: the message has gained much wider publication than we would have ever imagined. So, in essence they are doing a great service, albeit they receive no credit because they do so unwittingly and they intend it for evil.”

“Have a nice day,” Phelps concluded.

Church members on Monday demonstrated at the funeral of Army Cpl. Adam J. Fargo in Culpepper, Va.

On Tuesday, they picketed at the funeral of Army Staff Sgt. Michael A. Dickenson II in Fayetteville, N.C.

The group also headed for Arlington National Cemetery, where Army Staff Sgt. Robert J. Chiomento was laid to rest yesterday.