The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments today from both sides of the Snyder v. Phelps case, which will decide whether a father’s right to privacy and peaceable assembly at the funeral of his son outweighs the free speech rights of a religious group that staged a protest near the solemn event.
The plaintiff, Albert Snyder, is claiming damages for the “intentional infliction of emotional distress” by members of the Westboro Baptist Church, founded by Fred Phelps of Topeka, Kan. The plaintiff’s son, U.S. Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder, was killed while on active duty in Iraq.
At the March 2006 funeral of Snyder’s son, the Westboro group disrupted the event with anti-gay signs, some of which read, “Fag Troops,” “Thank God for IEDs,” “God Hates Fags,” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.” The Phelps sect believes that God is allowing troops in Iraq and Afghanistan to be killed as a punishment for liberal attitudes in America toward homosexuals.
“Anyone who goes out of their way to desecrate a military funeral in such a hateful manner has no respect for the sacrifices our warriors have made, and continue to make, in combat,” said Jimmie Foster, national commander of The American Legion. “We support Albert Snyder’s right to a peaceful funeral for his son, and we certainly hope the U.S. Supreme Court rules in his favor.”
The American Legion filed a “friend of the court” brief on behalf of Snyder and has raised more than $17,000 in donations to his legal defense fund.
In a hearing that lasted about an hour, Supreme Court justices listened to arguments by attorneys Sean Summers for the plaintiff and Margie Phelps for her father, the defendant. The court directed the lawyers to address three questions:
- Does Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell apply to suit between two private persons concerning a private manner?
- Does the First Amendment’s freedom of speech trump the First Amendment’s freedom of religion and peaceful assembly?
- Does an individual attending a family member’s funeral constitute a captive audience, who is entitled to state protection from unwanted communication?
According to Mark Seavey, an American Legion official who sat in on the hearing, Justice Ruth Ginsburg thought the question was even easier: Whether the First Amendment must tolerate “exploiting this bereaved family.”
The Supreme Court probably won’t make a final determination on the case until next year, according to Seavey.