“Thank God for Dead Soldiers.” “You’re Going to Hell.” “Semper Fi Fags.”
Hundreds of grieving families have been targets of Westboro Baptist Church, which believes military deaths are the work of a wrathful God punishing the country for tolerating homosexuality.
Most try to ignore the taunts. But Albert Snyder couldn’t let it go, becoming the first to sue Westboro to halt the demonstrations.
Now, more than four years after his Marine son died in Iraq, his legal battle is headed to the Supreme Court. Snyder’s tireless efforts have drawn support from across the country, including a wave of donations after he was ordered to pay the church’s court costs — a $16,500 judgment the church plans to use for more protests.
Lance Cpl. Matthew A. Snyder, 20, was not gay. But the church considers any dead soldier fair game. Fred Phelps oversees a congregation of 70 to 80 members — mostly his children and grandchildren. Snyder feels Westboro isn’t engaging in constitutionally protected speech. He argues Phelps and his followers are disrupting private assemblies and harassing people at their most vulnerable.
Snyder’s lawsuit accuses the church of invading his privacy and intentionally inflicting emotional distress. Snyder has his ex-wife and his two daughters’ support, but insisted on being the only plaintiff. The case takes up nearly all his time and he said it’s more stressful than a second full-time job. The litigation has forced him to relive the anguish of his son’s death, and his grief is still raw.
“It’s like I constantly relive this every day,” Snyder said.
Several weeks after the funeral, the pastor’s daughter, Shirley Phelps-Roper, wrote in an online diatribe that Snyder and his ex-wife taught their son “to defy his creator.”
Westboro also protests nonmilitary events, such as the 2007 funeral of the Rev. Jerry Falwell.
The Court Battle
Lawyers Sean E. Summers and Craig T. Trebilcock, both military veterans, agreed to take Snyder’s case pro bono.
Snyder won the first round, when a jury in federal court awarded him $10.9 million in damages in October 2007. A judge later reduced the award to $5 million.
Last September, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the verdict, ruling the protest was constitutionally protected speech. The court ordered Snyder to pay Westboro $16,510 in court costs. While it’s not unusual for the losing party in a civil case to be required to pay some costs, it rarely happens when an individual sues a private entity, especially when the case is still active, experts said.
The Supreme Court agreed last month to consider whether the protesters’ actions are protected by the First Amendment. The case will be argued in the fall.
Margie Jean Phelps, Fred Phelps’ daughter and attorney, will argue the case before the Supreme Court.
Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly pledged to pay the entire $16,510, and the American Legion has raised more than $20,000. Every day, hundreds of envelopes arrive. Snyder plans to use the money for other court fees and donate what’s left to veterans.
A free speech issue
Not everyone is on Snyder’s side, even if they find Westboro’s protests loathsome.
They point to the undisputed facts of the case. Westboro contacted police before its protest, which was conducted in a designated area on public land — 1,000 feet from the church.
The protesters broke no laws. Snyder knew they were present but did not see their signs or hear their statements until he turned on the news at his son’s wake.