Like his Marine Corps son, Matthew, Albert Snyder is a fighter. Shortly after Matthew lost his life while serving in Iraq, Albert was shocked to learn that protestors from the Westboro Baptist Church were demonstrating and yelling hateful slogans at his son’s funeral. Albert sued the Church for its outrageous behavior and though he prevailed in a lower court, the Supreme Court ruled 8-1 in Westboro’s favor on March 2.
Legionnaire and attorney Sean Summers represented Snyder pro bono, but the grieving father is responsible for having to pay Westboro’s legal bills. In response, The American Legion raised money for the Albert Snyder Legal Fund. Albert Snyder and Sean Summers spoke with The American Legion shortly before they were presented with a $26,458 check at The American Legion’s 51st Annual Washington Conference on March 22.
TAL: Why did you decide to take on Westboro?
Albert Snyder: Because I got tired of seeing them doing what they’re doing to military families. I guess it started off as ‘No, you’re not doing this to my kid,’ but then it grew and grew.
TAL: What message do you think this case sent?
A.S.: I think it brought the Westboro Baptist Church out into the public and exposed them for what they were. At many military funerals at the time, there were no counter-protestors. Now, the Patriot Guard is there. It is now in the public’s attention. Hundreds, and sometimes thousands of counter-protestors, now show up at these funerals. I guess in that way, we won the battle.
TAL: What type of support have you received?
A.S.: Oh my gosh, it’s been unbelievable. The biggest support has come from veterans. I’ve gotten support from Congress, from state attorney generals across the country, and from (TV commentator) Bill O’Reilly. But I give credit to veterans for providing the most support.
TAL: Sean, are there other legal issues to be addressed since the Supreme Court has ruled?
Sean Summers: The civil case is over but the Phelps (“pastor” Fred Phelps and his family) have requested that Mr. Snyder pay for their costs at the trial court level. The 4th Circuit ruled that Mr. Snyder pay $16,500 at the appellate level and that amount is what Mr. O’Reilly agreed to pay. But concerning other court requests, I have no idea when the judge will make a decision concerning that.
I know in Maryland, they are trying to revamp the funeral protest laws. I do suspect that they will continue to try to deter this one group from Topeka, Kan., that seems intent on harassing the rest of the country.
TAL: So the Supreme Court ruling was not a total victory for Westboro because the Court did uphold many of the restrictions for protesting at funerals?
S.S.: Basically, the Court said that as long as funeral protest statutes comply with all the other constitutional requirements, that yes they will be upheld. The problem with making a blanket statement like that is that there are 43 states with statutes and each one is a little different. The Court basically said that assuming they are constitutionally sound, they will be upheld.
A.S.: And some states are revamping their laws now. The law that Maryland is trying to put into effect now would require protestors to be no closer than 2,500 feet away, five hours before or five hours after a funeral. If every state could do that it would be fantastic.
TAL: Could these statutes wind up back in the Supreme Court?
S.S.: Theoretically it could because Westboro is made up of attorneys and they also get legal help from the ACLU – so they could litigate for free. The real shame is that if they challenge state statutes and prevail, there is an automatic fee-shifting statute which lets them recover their fees from the state.
TAL: How did you get involved in this case Sean?
S.S.: Al was referred to my law firm. A couple of us met with Al, we discussed the pros and cons of litigation and then we frankly sent him away and told him to think long and hard about this. But then they protested another funeral, and Al said ‘Let’s do this, right now!’
TAL: Did you imagine the case would go as far as it has?
S.S.: I would never be naïve enough to think it would go before the Supreme Court because statistically there is slim to no chance that it would go that far. There are just so many cases, but I didn’t think it would be settled.
TAL: Were you surprised at the ruling?
S.S.: We thought it would be a close call,like almost any case before the Supreme Court is. I was surprised at how easy they made it sound because none of the briefs, for or against, made it sound easy.
TAL: Do you plan to stay involved in the drafting of state statutes?
S.S.: They (Westboro) tend to push the limits wherever they go. When seven children died in a tragic fire in Pennsylvania, Westboro threatened to protest at their funerals. They didn’t protest, but they essentially tortured that family by the very thought of it. This is a family with very limited means. They were trying to bury their children and see if there were any remedies to stop this. That’s the unfortunate part – you can create statutes but this family has already gone through hell, and you’re pouring salt in the wounds even if the protestors don’t show up. It’s certainly despicable. Frankly at this point, I think it’s time forthe folks of Kansas tostep up and see what they can do to restrain their activities.
A.S.: I also don’t think that people realize that the taxpayers in some of these small communities have to pay $5,000 to $10,000 each time these people show up to protect them.
TAL: Is there any message you would like to send to The American Legion and your other supporters?
A.S.: I want to thank all the veterans and all the military in Iraq and Afghanistan who have contacted me. And all the parents that I’ve talked to who have gone through the same thing that I have.
TAL: How supportive has the legal community been?
S.S.: Most professors and constitutional professors in this country are fairly liberal and members of the ACLU. But overall, people are supportive. I gave a speech at Dickinson Law School in Pennsylvania and one of the professors, who wrote a brief for the other side, came down and talked to me afterward. He said he was so troubled by this that he hoped the Court would rule in our favor and not touch the First Amendment at the same time. And frankly, none of us wanted to do anything to the First Amendment either. We just wanted the harassment to stop.