A Baltimore federal jury awarded nearly $11 million Wednesday to the father of a Marine killed in Iraq, deciding that the family's privacy had been invaded by a Kansas church whose members waved anti-gay signs at the funeral.
It was the first-ever verdict against Westboro Baptist Church, a fundamentalist Christian group based in Topeka that has protested military funerals across the country with placards bearing shock-value messages such as "Thank God for dead soldiers."
They contend that the deaths are punishment for America's tolerance of homosexuality and of gays in the military.
Relatives of Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder wept and hugged at the jury's announcement, which came a day after closing arguments in the civil trial in federal district court.
"Now I know it's going to be harder for them to do it to anyone else," said Albert Snyder, who mourned at his son's funeral in March 2006 while seven Westboro members waved signs nearby.
The compensatory damage award alone, $2.9 million, was nearly triple the net worth of Westboro and the three members on trial, their attorney said.
Fred W. Phelps Sr., Westboro's founder, vowed to appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, in Richmond, Va.
"It's going to be reversed in five minutes," he said. This case, he added, "will elevate me to something important," as it draws more publicity to his cause.
The jury found the defendants liable for violating the Snyder family's expectation of privacy at the funeral and for intentionally inflicting emotional distress.
Snyder's lawsuit spurred a constitutional debate over how far the First Amendment should extend to protect the most extreme forms of expression.
Some legal experts said the judgment could be a setback for those who believe in broad free-speech protections.
"I think when speech is a matter of public concern it still has to be protected, even when by social standards it is extraordinarily rude and outrageous," said UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh.
University of Maryland law professor Mark Graber said the size of award, which included $8 million in punitive damages, could have a chilling effect on speech.
"This was in a public space," Graber said "While the actions are reprehensible, the First Amendment protects a lot that's reprehensible." After the verdict, Phelps and his two daughters named in Snyder's lawsuit said they believed that it was really their religious beliefs that were on trial.
"The goofy jury threw a fit at God," Phelps said.
For years Westboro members have crisscrossed the country, turning somber funerals of soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan into attention-grabbing platforms to criticize homosexuals as immoral and damned. The church's 75-member congregation is composed mainly of Phelps' relatives.
The group also blames disasters, including Hurricane Katrina, the Sept. 11 attacks and AIDS, on what it views as permissive morals in violation of biblical dictates.
Alarmed by Westboro protests, at least 22 states have proposed or enacted laws to limit the rights of protesters at funerals. Only months after Matthew Snyder's death, Maryland passed a law prohibiting targeted picketing within 300 feet of a funeral, burial, memorial service or funeral procession.
The courtroom fight came down to whether Westboro had a legal right to demonstrate at Snyder's funeral or whether the protesters crossed the line because their message impugned the grieving family's reputation and unlawfully invaded the Snyders' privacy.
The Marine's father, a 52-year-old who lives in York, Pa., sued the church and three of its members, founder Phelps and two of his daughters, Rebecca Phelps-Davis and Shirley Phelps-Roper.
On Fred Phelp's website we found this smarmy comentary on the verdict:
Thank God for the $10.9 Million Verdict!
In His compassion, for the last 17 years, God has sent His servants – the apple of His eye -
from this humble little church, to warn you DAILY to flee from the wrath to come. You –
Doomed America – have mocked, vilified, prosecuted, persecuted, sued, and otherwise
abused His ambassadors (2Chronicles 36:16). You have done it despite all of your laws, and
your great flowery words about freedom! You have done it against your own interest, Doomed
America! You have tried to destroy the church of God, misusing all of the powers of
government, even while God has daily sent you adumbrations of His wrath. You have torn to
shreds the First Amendment, in an effort to silence the Word of God, which reeks of death to
you! (2Corinthians 2:16)
Through all of these efforts, you have accomplished only one thing – your dark, hateful hearts
have been hardened by the God that made you, and put the breath of life into your nostrils.
The standard of God has not changed! Your children, whom God has bereaved you of, are
still dead, and more are slaughtered each day! America is still doomed! Katrina still
happened! California is still on fire! Dramatically worse, and more is coming! What you did
NOT do is silence the preaching of God’s servants in the earth! We will continue to warn you
of your impending doom as long as our God gives us breath. Not only did you fail to stop
our preaching, but our message has gone forth to the ENTIRE WORLD on this day,
because of your folly, like never before! Thank God for the $10.9 Million Verdict!
It seems that Phelps has forgotten the most important aspect of Christianity; love. Nothing is so powerful it can stand against love, not even a has been hater who is about to lose all he has because he can't deal with diversity. I can't help but feel sad for people like Fred. I wonder regretfully how much good a man of his energy could have done if it were focused on healing instead of hurting people.