Justice undone


Last week, the father of a Marine who died in combat was ordered to pay $16,510. 80 to Fred Phelps, leader of the hate-spewing Westboro Baptist Church responsible for protesting soldiers’ funerals.

The Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ordered Albert Snyder to pay Phelps, who had protested at Snyder’s son’s funeral in 2006.

In September, the appeals court threw out a Baltimore jury’s ruling in Snyder’s favor, along with Snyder’s original award of $5 million. At the time, the jury found that the picketers, with signs that said, “God Hates You” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” intentionally inflicted emotional distress on the family.

The three-judge appeals panel in Richmond, Va., unanimously found that the messages on the protest signs were protected under the First Amendment because they were general in nature.

“As utterly distasteful as these signs are,” wrote Judge Robert B. King, “they involve matters of public concern, including the issues of homosexuals in the military, the sex-abuse scandal within the Catholic Church, and the political and moral conduct of the United States and its citizens.”

The Topeko, Kan.-based Westboro says the deaths of soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan are God’s punishment for America’s tolerance of gays and lesbians.

The appeals-court decision came down three weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.

The court will consider if the protesters’ message is protected by the First Amendment or limited by the competing privacy and religious rights of the mourners.

Snyder’s attorneys said he is struggling to raise money to file a brief with the Supreme Court.

The latest appeals-court decision has drawn plenty of media and public attention, as well as some surprising allies. Reportedly, noted right-wing commentator Bill O’Reilly of Fox News Channel offered to pay Snyder’s court costs. A Facebook group, “I support Al Snyder in His fight against Westboro Baptist Church,” had 35,915 members by press time. Conservative bloggers are supporting Snyder, and an American Legion-affiliated blog has started an Albert Snyder Fund. Members of the Patriot Guard Riders, a motorcycle club that blocks protesters at soldiers’ funerals, have contributed to the fund.

This case provides for an interesting alliance: military supporters and the LGBT community. A case of the enemy of my enemy is my friend, if you will.

But it’s an opportunity the LGBT community should not squander: Giving vocal support to Snyder and other families Westboro has protested will further prove the church to be the bunch of publicity-hungry loons that they are.