The high court ruled in an 8-1 opinion that the tiny Topeka, Kan., church -- which is not affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention or any other denomination -- is not liable for its 2006 protest outside the funeral of a Marine killed in Iraq. Associate Justice Samuel Alito was the lone dissenter.
Roger S. Oldham, vice president for communications and convention relations of the SBC Executive Committee, reiterated the convention's repudiation of Westboro's actions.
"The vast majority of those associated with the SBC and its cooperating churches share disgust at the image this group conveys of the Christian message and the name Baptist," Oldham said after the court's ruling, "and are repulsed at the tactics the church uses to sensationalize its message of hate."
The funeral of Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder in Westminster, Md., is one of hundreds chosen by Westboro pastor Fred Phelps and fellow members for protests at which they display such signs as "God hates fags," "Thank God for dead soldiers" and "Semper fi fags." Westboro, consisting largely of members of the Phelps family, contends the deaths of American military personnel overseas demonstrate God is judging the country for its toleration of homosexuality.
Writing for the majority in what he described as a "narrow" holding, Chief Justice John Roberts said the First Amendment's protection of "even hurtful speech on public issues" mandates the court protect Westboro's right to picket in the case.
Liberty Counsel decried Westboro's tactics and messages but said the justices' ruling was necessary to protect "religious, pro-life or pro-family speech" in the future.
The high court "clearly recognized that the bad facts of this case could lead to the restriction of legitimate free speech rights of law-abiding citizens," said Mathew Staver, Liberty Counsel's chairman. "The First Amendment does not grant to anyone a veto right over another person's speech, simply because it might be offensive. Free speech needs breathing room. I would rather tolerate a person's offensive speech than be silenced by the force of law."
Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, a conservative Republican, said the ruling vindicated his decision not to join with 48 other states in a friend-of-the-court brief against Westboro.
Saying he "absolutely deplore the vile and despicable acts" by the Westboro protesters, Cuccinelli said a ruling against Phelps and his followers "could have set a precedent that would severely curtail certain valid exercises of free speech. If protestors -- whether political, civil rights, pro-life, or environmental -- said something that offended the object of the protest to the point where that person felt harmed, the protestors could successfully be sued."
Cuccinelli said, however, he would vigorously defend Virginia's law barring funeral disruptions.
Maggie Gallagher, president of the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy, objected to the opinion, saying rules against Westboro's actions "are not directed at the content of speech" but "are reasonable time and place restrictions that any decent society should respect."
"The Constitution is not a suicide pact," she said.
In the court's 15-page opinion, Roberts acknowledged Westboro's views expressed at Snyder's funeral were "particularly hurtful," especially to the Marine's father, Albert, who filed the suit.
Roberts, however, said the public nature and setting -- in a public place about 1,000 feet from the service's site -- of Westboro's protest meant its speech "is entitled to 'special protection' under the First Amendment. Such speech cannot be restricted simply because it is upsetting or arouses contempt."
"Westboro's funeral picketing is certainly hurtful and its contribution to public discourse may be negligible," Roberts wrote. "But Westboro addressed matters of public import on public property, in a peaceful manner, in full compliance with the guidance of local officials. The speech was indeed planned to coincide with Matthew Snyder's funeral, but did not itself disrupt that funeral, and Westboro's choice to conduct its picketing at that time and place did not alter the nature of its speech.
"Speech is powerful," Roberts continued. "It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and -- as it did here -- inflict great pain. On the facts before us, we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker."
In his dissent, Alito -- a member of the court's conservative bloc -- said America's "profound national commitment to free and open debate is not a license for the vicious verbal assault that occurred in this case."
Westboro's members have "almost limitless opportunities to express their views," but that does not mean they "may intentionally inflict severe emotional injury on private persons at a time of intense emotional sensitivity by launching vicious verbal attacks that make no contribution to public debate," Alito wrote.
Albert Snyder said he was "very surprised" by the decision. "My first thought was that eight justices didn't have the common sense that God gave a goat," he said, according to the York (Pa.) Dispatch.
Margie Phelps, a daughter of Westboro's pastor and a lawyer who argued Westboro's case before the justices, said of the opinion, "We had two things in the bank. We follow the law and God holds the hearts of kings in his hands."
Phelps said Westboro's picketing at funerals likely will increase.
"The megaphone this case put to mouths of this little church is unquantifiable," she said, according to The Topeka Capital-Journal.
Snyder won his suit initially in a 2007 ruling in a Baltimore, Md., federal court. He was granted $5 million in damages for invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress. In 2009, however, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., overturned the ruling, finding Westboro's speech was protected by the First Amendment.
Maryland and other states have enacted laws restricting such protests, and Congress has passed a law barring protests of military funerals at federal cemeteries.
The Supreme Court's opinion in Snyder v. Phelps may be accessed online at http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/10pdf/09-751.pdf.
Despite the fact that there is no relation between Westboro and the Southern Baptist Convention, Southern Baptist leaders have repudiated Westboro's actions multiple times. Westboro, in fact, has picketed the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting and the Nashville SBC building. (Visit http://www.bpnews.net/BPCollectionNews.asp?ID=169 for an overview of SBC leaders' comments.)
Compiled by Tom Strode, Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.
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