Opinion: Westboro Baptist Church protesting soldiers' funerals

Megan Phelps-Roper, 20, a junior at Washburn University protests soldiers funeral outside the gates of the Arlington National Cemetery funeral of Marine Lance Cpl.

On March 3, 2006, Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder was killed in action in the Al Anbar province of Iraq. A similar line could describe most of the other soldiers who have died in the last 7 1/2 years of combat.
But, the similarities end there.

In less than a month, Matt Snyder went from defending freedoms abroad to the center of a First Amendment debate at home.

The debate actually has nothing to do with Snyder. He’s the innocent bystander in a clash of rights that reached the Supreme Court this week.

Snyder’s funeral was protested by the Topeka-based Westboro Baptist Church because the church believes God punishes soldiers for American tolerance of homosexuality, even soldiers like Matt who aren’t gay.

The protesters held signs that read “You’re going to hell,” “God hates fags,” “Thank God for 9/11,” and “Thank God for dead soldiers.” To avoid the hateful words, Al Snyder, Matt’s father, rerouted the funeral procession away from the Westboro members but couldn’t escape the images on television.

Al Snyder decided to sue Westboro and the case has made its way to the nation’s highest court. The Supreme Court will have to decide what the First Amendment protects when the different values are in conflict, namely Westboro’s right to free speech or Snyder’s right to assemble and exercise his religion.

In October 2007, a federal jury ruled in favor of Snyder. Two years later, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the verdict. Forty-eight states and 42 senators have sided with Snyder, while the ACLU and many news organizations have supported Westboro’s right to offend. Both sides have a very compelling legal argument.

A ruling either way could set a dangerous precedent against free speech or freedom of assembly.

Obviously, the court of public opinion will side with Al Snyder and the memory of his fallen son. Anyone with a conscience should be disgusted by the behavior of Westboro and its founder Fred Phelps. However, the court can’t rule in favor of Snyder because Phelps is a bigot. The First Amendment is designed to protect even the most heinous of statements.

But freedom of speech can only go so far. You can’t yell fire in a crowded theater. You can’t use language that will directly incite public violence. Freedom of speech is not absolute. But, where is the line?

Can you hold up a sign outside of a private funeral that says, “Thank God for dead soldiers”? It doesn’t really fit into any of the previous landmark First Amendment cases.

Tom Goldstein, who has argued 22 cases before the Supreme Court told Time’s Sean Gregory that, “This case really cries out for ‘just this once.’ We have to protect this family and the memory of the soldiers who gave their lives in the ultimate sacrifice. But it’s very hard to write a legal rule like that.”

You can’t think about this case without feeling like you’ve been punched in the stomach. You can’t help but wonder what kind of person would hold a sign that says, “Thank God for dead soldiers,” at a funeral. What kind of people would come to a service to say they are glad someone is dead? It is beyond understanding.

Regardless of the legal decision, Al Snyder’s battle against Westboro is a brilliant example of a father’s love and devotion. He was trying to honor his son that late winter day, and Fred Phelps would not let him. To this day, Al Snyder says he can’t think about his son without thinking of the protestors. He didn’t deserve this. No one deserves this.

In getting his case to the Supreme Court, Al Snyder has brought national recognition to his son’s service. He might never be able to think of Matt without thinking about the hateful signs, but the rest of us can.

Maybe that’s the only good thing that can come out of this. The court can’t give Snyder another funeral for Matt, even if they rule in his favor. But we as a country can honor Matt Snyder for his service and give him the tribute that Westboro Baptist Church didn’t want him to have.

This columnist and this country stand with you, Mr. Snyder. The words “Thank God for dead soldiers” might be etched into your memory, but the words “Matt Snyder: American Hero,” will forever be etched into ours.

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