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Margie Phelps, second from right, a daughter of Fred Phelps, and the lawyer who argued the case for the Westboro Baptist Church, walks from the Supreme Court last October. The Supreme Court has ruled that the First Amendment protects the fundamentalist church's attention-getting, anti-gay protests outside military funerals. (AP)

Supreme Court Sides With Westboro Church On Funeral Protests

Mar 2, 2011

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The First Amendment protects the right of the Westboro Baptist Church to hold anti-gay protests outside military funerals, the Supreme Court ruled Tuesday. The 8-1 ruling backs an appeals court decision to throw out a $5 million victory for Albert Snyder, who sued the fundamentalist church after its members picketed his son's funeral.

Asked why anyone would bring signs reading "God Hates Fags" and "You're Going to Hell" to a funeral for U.S. military personnel, church leader Rev. Fred Phelps said last year, "When the whole country is given over to sodomy and sodomite enablers ... the country needs this preaching."

The Supreme Court ruled that the right to free speech protects Phelps and his church members to express their opinions during military and other high-profile funerals.

The lone dissenter in the case, Justice Samuel Alito, wrote that Westboro Baptist has other tools at is disposal to get its message out, from books and articles to emails and websites. But instead, Phelps and his group "launched a malevolent verbal attack on Matthew and his family at a time of acute emotional vulnerability," Alito wrote.

Here's an excerpt of his dissent:

I fail to see why actionable speech should be immunized simply because it is interspersed with speech that is protected. The First Amendment allows recovery for defamatory statements that are interspersed with nondefamatory statements on matters of public concern, and there is no good reason why respondents' attack on Matthew Snyder and his family should be treated differently.

Writing the majority opinion that the church's speech is protected, Chief Justice John Roberts said the case "turns largely on whether that speech is of public or private concern."

Because most of the church's protesters hold up signs that address the state of the country as a whole, Roberts wrote, "The 'content' of Westboro's signs plainly relates to broad issues of interest to society at large, rather than matters of 'purely private concern.'"

Roberts also noted that the church had kept its protesters on public land near the site of Snyder's funeral.

From his majority opinion:

Westboro believes that America is morally flawed; many Americans might feel the same about Westboro. Westboro's funeral picketing is certainly hurtful and its contribution to public discourse may be negligible. But Westboro addressed matters of public import on public property, in a peaceful manner, in full compliance with the guidance of local officials. The speech was indeed planned to coincide with Matthew Snyder's funeral, but did not itself disrupt that funeral, and Westboro's choice to conduct its picketing at that time and place did not alter the nature of its speech.

You can read the full opinions here.

The Kansas-based church's practice of picketing funerals has caused controversy and anger. In the aftermath of the deadly Tucson shootings that left Rep. Gabrielle Giffords severely injured, the church raised the ire of many when it planned to take its signs to the funeral for nine-year-old Christina Green.

The threat of such a protest led Arizona to quickly enact legislation to ban protests within 300 feet of a funeral. The law also made it illegal for protesters to be present within an hour of the funeral's start or finish.

The church eventually decided not to proceed with that protest, after an Arizona radio station promised to give the church airtime in exchange for a promise not to picket Green's funeral.

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