Since 2005, at the funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) members carry placards with sayings like “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” and “Thank God for IEDs [improvised explosive devices]” while shouting epithets at mourners.
The group quickly gained national media attention for the practice and, to date, 41 states and the federal government have enacted legislation that attempts to limit it. The constitutionality of these laws, on both freedom of speech and freedom of religion grounds, has been challenged in four states, with mixed results. In March 2007, a federal court in Ohio upheld, with slight revisions, that state’s anti-funeral picketing law. However, in December of that year WBC won a preliminary injunction prohibiting the state of Missouri from enforcing its law. In June 2009, the United States Supreme Court refused to hear Missouri’s appeal of the preliminary injunction.
In addition, in October 2007, a federal jury in Baltimore, Maryland, found members of the WBC guilty of violating a right to privacy and intentionally inflicting emotional distress against the family of Matthew Snyder, a Marine who was killed in Iraq in 2006. Snyder’s father, Albert, was the first individual to attempt such a lawsuit against the group and this was the first time the church had been held liable for its military funeral protests.
The jury initially ordered the WBC to pay nearly $11 million in damages, a sum members claimed was many times more than WBC’s net assets. In February 2008, a federal judge in Baltimore reduced the amount of the damages to $5 million, finding that the original punitive damages were excessive. In September 2009, a federal appeals court threw out the verdict entirely. It ruled that even though the group held up “utterly distasteful” signs at Snyder’s funeral, the signs commented on issues of “public concern” and were therefore constitutionally protected speech. In early October 2010, the Supreme Court heard Snyder’s appeal to determine whether the appeals court erred in overturning the jury’s award of damages.
On March 2, 2011 the Supreme Court ruled 8-1 in favor of the WBC, stressing that the group was protected by the First Amendment and its free speech rights to debate public issues. The Court also noted that the WBC had obeyed directions from local officials, maintained a distance from the church where the Snyder funeral was held, and did not disrupt the funeral service.
Another case revolved around charges for flag desecration made against Shirley Phelps-Roper in Nebraska in June 2007. As is her custom, she had worn an American flag so that it trailed on the ground and also allowed her 10-year-old son to stand on an American flag while protesting at a soldier’s funeral in the state. In February 2009, a Nebraska state judge denied her challenge to the constitutionality of the flag desecration law. At the end of December 2009, Phelps-Roper filed a federal lawsuit against more than a dozen Nebraska state officials, including the governor, attorney general, and judges involved in the ongoing flag desecration case. Her lawsuit challenges a number of state and city laws, among them those that deal with flag desecration and funeral pickets. Phelps-Roper alleges that these laws infringed upon her right to free speech and are being applied in a discriminatory fashion.
In July 2010, Megan Phelps-Roper, Shirley’s daughter, filed a federal lawsuit that challenged the constitutionality of Nebraska’s flag desecration law, saying that the law infringed on her freedom of speech. Two months later, in September, a federal judge overturned the Nebraska law. The judge said that the law could not be applied if Megan Phelps-Roper and other members of the WBC “otherwise acted peacefully while desecrating the American or Nebraska flag during their religiously motivated protests.” In addition, the judge ordered Nebraska state officials to pay $8,000 in attorney’s fees to Megan Phelps-Roper.
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