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'God hates fags' family face Supreme Court action

The infamous Phelps family of the Westboro Baptist Church are brought to court over protests at military funerals.

The Phelps family regularly protests at military funerals, claiming soldiers die because America tolerates homosexuality.
The Phelps family regularly protests at military funerals, claiming soldiers die because America tolerates homosexuality.
Image: Jed Kirschbaum/AP

THE UNITED STATES SUPREME COURT has begun hearing arguments in an emotional case taken against a controversial church which protests at military funerals and claims God allows American soldiers to die because of the military’s tolerance of homosexuality.

The family of Matthew Snyder, a Marine killed in Iraq in 2006, were sickened when the Westboro Baptist Church of Kansas – led by Fred Phelps and his family – attended their son’s funeral and held placards explaning that Snyder had died as a result of divine wrath.

“You’re going to hell,” read one sign. ”God Hates Fags,” “Semper fi fags,” and “Thank God for dead soldiers” read others. The family is well-known for running a website, godhatesfags.com, from which it preaches its conservative message of anti-homosexuality.

The family argues – through its lawyer, Fred’s daugher Margie – that its protests are an expression of its constitutional right to free speech. The church had originally lost an $11m judgement against it, which was then reduced to $5m and thrown out entirely by subsequent court appeals. Snyder’s family are now appealing the latter decision, by a federal appeals court, to the highest court in the country.

The protests at Snyder’s funeral – which was heavily publicised on news across the country – led to such public outcry that Congress passed an act two months later barring any protests within 300 feet of a military funeral.

Asked by the court why it chose to exploit military funerals when it had so many other fora to preach on, Phelps argued that once the family stayed within the legal bounds, it was entitled to preach its message as it saw fit.

The Snyders’ attorney argues that the Phelps’ protest is intended to cause emotional distress, a condition which the American courts have previously found to be an act beyond freedom-of-speech allowances.

In 1988 the court ruled that a public figure may not recover damages for emotional anguish without showing that the other party had acted with “actual malice”. The Phelps family believe the late soldier’s funeral became a public event when an advertisement for it was placed in a local paper; the Snyders say their son is not a ‘public figure’ and remained a private individual.

The Westboro church has held over 43,000 pickets relating to military deaths, and claims to have visited almost 800 cities spreading its protests.

About the author:

Gavan Reilly

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