Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Supreme Court Upholds Westboro Baptist Church's Right to Picket Military Funerals

The Supreme Court ruled today that members of the controversial Westboro Baptist Church have a constitutionally protected right to protest military funerals. Despite near universal condemnation of WBC's message, the court ultimately held that the First Amendment's protection of free speech applies to the church's protests. The case was brought before the Supreme Court on appeal after the WBC was successfully sued for inflicting emotional distress after the group picketed the funeral of Matthew Snyder, a US Marine killed in Iraq in 2006. The decision in favor of Snyder's father, who brought the case against WBS, had been thrown out by a federal appeals court in Virginia, setting the stage for the showdown before the Supreme Court.

Chief Justice John Roberts, who penned the majority opinion in the 8-1 decision, explained the ruling:
"Simply put, the church members had the right to be where they were...Westboro alerted local authorities to its funeral protest and fully complied with police guidance on where the picketing could be staged. The picketing was conducted under police supervision some 1,000 feet from the church, out of the sight of those at the church. The protest was not unruly; there was no shouting, profanity, or violence."
The court's decision was not without some moral valuation to supplement the legal ruling on WBC's behavior. From Chief Justice Robert's majority opinion:
"Westboro believes that America is morally flawed; many Americans might feel the same about Westboro. Westboro's funeral picketing is certainly hurtful and its contribution to public discourse may be negligible...Speech is powerful. 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. As a Nation we have chosen a different course - to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate."
The one dissenting opinion came from Justice Alito, who wrote
"Our profound national commitment to free and open debate is not a license for the vicious verbal assault that occurred in this case."
The Westboro Baptist Church, listed by the Southern Poverty Law Center as an anti-gay hate group, is headed by the infamous Rev. Fred Phelps, whose family members comprise the bulk of the church's membership. WBC members routinely protest military funerals under the rationale that the deaths of US armed forces personnel are punishment from God for the nation's supposed tolerance of homosexuality.

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