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The 1st Amendment Protects Even Rude Religious Lunatics

Last week, the Supreme Court ruled on the side of Westboro Baptist Church, otherwise known as one of the craziest religious organizations in America. Not only are the members of Westboro Baptist Church crazy, but they pride themselves in exuding a rare lack of decorum that could make Lady Gaga or Charlie Sheen blush.

It seems that this ‘religious’ institution has a problem with homosexuality, and has come to the conclusion that this is more or less the singular issue that is leading the America into chaos and imminent decline.

The Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) is an independent Baptist church known for its extreme stance against homosexuality and its protest activities, which include picketing funerals and desecrating the American flag. The church is widely described as a hate group and is monitored as such by the Anti-Defamation League and Southern Poverty Law Center. It is headed by Fred Phelps and consists mostly of members of his large family; in 2007, it had 71 members. The church is headquartered in a residential neighborhood on the west side of Topeka about three miles west of the Kansas State Capitol at 3701 West 12th Street, Topeka, Kansas, United States. Its first public service was held on the afternoon of Sunday, November 27, 1955.

The church has been actively involved in the anti-gay movement since at least 1991 when it sought a crackdown on homosexual activity at Gage Park about a mile northwest of the church.

The WBC is not affiliated with any known Baptist conventions or associations. The church describes itself as following Primitive Baptist and Calvinist principles, though mainstream Primitive Baptists reject the WBC and Phelps.

Ok, fair enough, but here is where crazy meets quizzically inappropriate.

In addition to anti-gay protests at military funerals, the organization pickets other celebrity funerals that are likely to get it media attention.

WBC’s travel expenses alone exceed $200,000 annually. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Westboro is funded entirely by its congregation. The church also makes money through lawsuits and legal fees.

So, basically, the Westboro Baptist Church spends 200K a year to fly around the country to protest the evils of homosexuality at military and celebrity funerals. In other words, they are indeed professional lunatics.

In 2006, Westboro Baptist Church took their crazy hate circus on the road to bring their message of stupidity to the funeral of U.S. Marine Lance Corporal Matthew A. Snyder, killed during his service in Iraq.

On March 10, 2006, Westboro Baptist Church picketed the funeral of U.S. Marine Lance Corporal Matthew A. Snyder, who was killed in a non-combat-related vehicle accident in Iraq on March 3, 2006. On March 8, WBC announced its intention of picketing the funeral, which it has done on numerous occasions, in support of its belief that America is doomed because of its increasing tolerance of homosexuality. It duly did so, displaying placards such as “America is doomed”, “You’re going to hell”, “God hates you”, “Fag troops”, “Semper fi fags” and “Thank God for dead soldiers”.

To add insult to injury, a couple weeks later, the Westboro Baptist Church posted derogatory comments targeted at Matthew’s father, Albert Snyder and his ex-wife for ‘raising their son Catholic, stating they “taught Matthew to defy his creator”, “raised him for the devil” and “taught him that God was a liar”.’ Defamation charges were filed against Westboro Baptist Church, but later dismissed.

The claim of defamation arising from comments posted about Snyder on the WBC website was dismissed, on the grounds that the contents were “essentially Phelps-Roper’s religious opinion and would not realistically tend to expose the Plaintiff to public hatred or scorn”. The claim of publicity given to private life was similarly dismissed since no private information was made public by the Defendants: they learned that Snyder was divorced and his son was Catholic from the obituary in the newspaper.

On the issue of whether or not Westboro Baptist Church curbside crazy sermon was protected under the First Amendment, Albert Snyder prevailed in the District Court of Maryland, then lost on appeal when the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the previous court decision. The Supreme Court ruled on the case this past week:

In an 8-1 decision the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Phelps, upholding the Fourth Circuit’s decision. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion stating “What Westboro said, in the whole context of how and where it chose to say it, is entitled to ‘special protection’ under the First Amendment and that protection cannot be overcome by a jury finding that the picketing was outrageous.”

The court’s opinion also stated that the memorial service was not disturbed, saying, “Westboro stayed well away from the memorial service, Snyder could see no more than the tops of the picketers’ signs, and there is no indication that the picketing interfered with the funeral service itself.” The decision also declined to expand the “captive audience doctrine”, saying that Snyder was not in a state where he was coerced to hear the negative speech.

Justice Stephen Breyer wrote a concurring opinion, expressing a view on content-neutral restrictions on funeral protesting.

Btw, ‘Content-neutral restrictions’ is legal fancy-talk that refers to the government’s inability to suppress speech unless they are doing so for reason of a legitimate public interest unrelated to the content of the message. i.e. prevent noise or litter.

Justice Samuel Alito was the lone dissenting justice in this case, beginning his dissent with, “Our profound national commitment to free and open debate is not a license for the vicious verbal assault that occurred in this case.” He concluded, “In order to have a society in which public issues can be openly and vigorously debated, it is not necessary to allow the brutalization of innocent victims like petitioner.”

Given the nature of the defendant and the message of this case, it’s almost tempting to agree with Justice Alito here. However, never forget that the 1st Amendment protects your message, no matter how unpopular, and here’s hope that as a country we don’t waste this profound freedom on only misguided religious lunatics.

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