Robert Knight

I'm with Sam Alito, at least in spirit.

The Associate Justice was alone in his dissent in Snyder vs. Phelps, in which the U.S. Supreme Court in an 8-1 ruling on March 2 voided a damage verdict against the Westboro Baptist Church for picketing a Maryland soldier’s funeral.

You know the Westboro folks. They’re the media darlings from Topeka, Kansas, who have picketed nearly 600 funerals. The Rev. Fred Phelps and his family brandish signs, the most famous of which is "God Hates Fags." Lately, they’ve been picketing military funerals with signs such as "God Hates the USA/Thank God for 9/11" and "Thank God for Dead Soldiers," saying they got what they deserve because America tolerates homosexuality.

The media love this 100-member "church" because they're useful caricatures to vilify Christians who defend marriage and oppose the aims of the homosexual activist movement. It doesn't matter that pro-family groups repeatedly condemn Phelps as a hateful nutcase who spews the unbiblical message that homosexuals, unlike the rest of us sinners, are beyond repentance and salvation.

In the Snyder case, Phelps, two of his daughters and four grandchildren had hoisted signs 1,000 feet from a Catholic Church in Westminster, Maryland on March 10, 2006 during the funeral of Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder, who had died when a Humvee flipped over in Iraq the week before.

Alleging defamation and emotional harm, Matthew’s father, Albert Snyder, sued Phelps, his daughters and Westboro Baptist Church. A jury awarded him nearly $11 million, which the district court reduced to $5 million. An appeals court overturned the award, and Snyder appealed to the Supreme Court, which upheld the appeal.

The Court’s opinion written by Chief Justice John Roberts and a concurrence by Stephen Breyer acknowledged that Phelps’ crude stunt had caused deep pain to the Snyder family at a profoundly vulnerable time. But because Phelps had complied with a Maryland law barring protests within 100 feet of a funeral and had not voiced obscenities, the protest was constitutionally protected speech.

Roberts wrote: "The record makes clear that the applicable legal term—'emotional distress'—fails to capture fully the anguish Westboro’s choice added to Mr. Snyder’s already incalculable grief. But Westboro conducted its picketing peacefully on matters of public concern at a public place adjacent to a public street. Such space occupies a 'special position in terms of First Amendment protection.'"

Robert Knight

Robert Knight is an author, senior fellow for the American Civil Rights Union and a frequent contributor to Townhall.