WASHINGTON – The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday morning in a case involving a small religious group's free speech rights and a father's right to privacy.
Sean E. Summers, representing the father of a fallen marine, contended that Albert Snyder "simply wanted to bury his son in a private, dignified manner."
"We're talking about a funeral," Summers said before the justices of the high court.
Snyder sued the notorious Westboro Baptist Church in 2007 after the congregation picketed the funeral of his 20-year-old son, Matthew, who was killed in Iraq. The Kansas congregation held signs reading "Thank God for Dead Soldiers" and "God Hates You."
The father alleged invasion of privacy, intentional infliction of emotional distress and civil conspiracy in his suit. A jury awarded the Snyder family nearly $11 million, which was later reduced to $5 million, but a federal appeals court overturned the verdict, concluding that Westboro's First Amendment rights were violated.
Margie Phelps, the attorney for hate-focused fringe group, is optimistic that the Supreme Court will side with the congregation.
"There's no line that can be drawn here without shutting down a lot of speech and you all (media) above everybody know you don't want your speech shut down. This court is committed to not shutting down speech," Phelps, daughter of Westboro founder and pastor Fred Phelps, said after the court hearing.
Westboro Church, a self-described "primitive" church, proudly touts on its website the 44,269 pickets that it's held. The congregation, mainly made up of Phelps' relatives, pickets at schools, churches and funerals, holding "America Is Doomed" and "You're Going to Hell" signs, among others.
Defending Westboro's protests at military funerals, Margie Phelps stated, "When you have a private funeral, we will not be there. When you have a public funeral and you broadcast to the nation that that dead soldier is a hero and that God is blessing America, we will be there and tell you God is cursing America."
Even on the courthouse steps, Westboro members continued their protests, proclaiming "God Hates Fags," "Thank God for Dead Soldiers" and now "Thank God for Breast Cancer." Their demonstration sparked a debate even outside the courtroom doors.
Several Christians who turned out for the hearing approached Westboro members and tried unsuccessfully to discuss Scripture. Students Garrett Zopfi, Allison Yancone and Josh Cetangell – all of whom are 18 years of age – traveled an hour from their school in Southern Maryland to hold up picket signs that read "Jesus Loves You" and "Love."
"I am a Christian and I'm here to send the opposite message," said Yancone.
Not surprisingly, it's clear that most Christians do not share views of the Westboro Baptist Church. However, with camera men flocking around Westboro sign bearers to record and broadcast their message, it's unclear if the general public can see the dividing line.
But Michael and Martie, husband and wife who chose to withhold their last name, believe people can tell the difference.
"I think this is such an extreme view that this is not what people think of Christianity," said Michael.
Just behind them, Anna, 18, said she is "still thinking about God" and believes the Westboro Baptists' message is a turn-off.
"I would hope that whatever God or whatever Creator would be more tolerant," she commented. Anna, who also chose to withhold her last name, went on to say, "I feel this may make people back away [from Christianity]."
The Southern Baptist Convention – the largest Protestant denomination in the country – has made it clear that the Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church is not Southern Baptist. SBC Vice President of Convention Relations Roger S. Oldham has stated, "We repudiate the tactics used by Fred Phelps and his followers at Westboro and find them offensive," according to Baptist Press.
In the same article, Richard Land of the Ethics and Religious Liberty called the group "misguided zealots" and said "to do their despicable deeds in the name of God is blasphemous."
Some young Christians who were present for Wednesday's court hearing also opposed Westboro's actions.
Michael Caranston and his high school friends commented, "We have to focus on loving the sinner and hating the sin."
While they may oppose homosexual behavior as Westboro does, Dylan Crider said Christians need to approach the matter differently.
"I think we need to profess our faith," the young believer said. "You need to stay calm. These people are being hostile."