In the 2011 case of Snyder v. Phelps, the Supreme Court of the United States held that a religious leader is allowed to protest homosexuality in the military outside of the funerals of fallen soldiers.
Factual Background of the Case
This case began with a man named Fred Phelps. In 1955 Phelps created the Westboro Baptist Church, based in Topeka, Kansas. One of the tenets taught by the church was that God is angry with the United States for its acceptance of homosexuality.
The church was particularly concerned with the treatment of homosexuals in the military. As a result, members frequently went to the funerals of soldiers and put on demonstrations. In 20 years, the church picketed at approximately 600 funerals.
Matthew Snyder was a Marine Lance Corporal that was killed in Iraq, while serving in the military. Matthew’s father, Albert, elected to have a funeral at a Catholic church in Westminster, Maryland. Westminster was Matthew’s hometown.
When Phelps and his congregation learned of the funeral, Phelps, 2 of his daughters, and 4 of his grandchildren traveled to Maryland with the intention of picketing. When they got there, they demonstrated outside of the Maryland State House, the U.S. Naval Academy, and on the public streets by Matthew’s funeral. They carried banners that read such things as:
- “God Hates the USA/Thank God for 9/11,”
- “America is Doomed,”
- “God Hates You,”
- “You’re Going to Hell,”
- “Priests Rape Boys,”
- “Thank God for IEDs,”
- “God Hates Fags,”
- “Pope in Hell,”
- “Don’t Pray for the USA,” and
- “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.”
Police were called in and informed Phelps and his band that they were required to stay on a plot of public land next to a public street that was approximately 1,000 feet away from the church. There were several buildings between the designated location and the church. The picketers complied with the police order to remain in that area.
When the funeral began, Phelps and his people began waving their signs, reciting Biblical quotes, and singing hymns. At all times, the group remained in the designated area and never became violent.
Later that night, Albert saw a news broadcast regarding Phelps and his protest, and, understandably, became upset.
Westboro’s website contained a forum that allowed parishioners to post comments. A few weeks after the funeral, one of Phelps’s followers posted a comment interspersed with Biblical citations, which denounced the Snyders.
Albert filed suit against Phelps and Westboro, claiming tort claims of defamation, publicity given to private life, intentional infliction of emotional distress, intrusion upon seclusion, and civil conspiracy.
Westboro filed a motion for summary judgment, alleging that the defendants were protected by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. The trial court agreed with Westboro with respect to the claims of defamation and publicity given to private life, but allowed the remaining claims proceed to trial.
The jury awarded Albert $2.9 million in compensatory damages and $8 million in punitive damages. The court reduced the punitive award to $2.1 million.
On appeal, the Court of Appeals felt that the case should have been dismissed pursuant to the First Amendment.
The case was then appealed to the United States Supreme Court. The Court agreed to hear the case.
At the time of this decision, prior case law had interpreted the First Amendment to be a valid defense in tort cases only when the subject matter of the speech at issue was public in nature. The First Amendment did not protect someone from a tort claim that was private in nature.
The question before the Court in this case was whether the First Amendment protected Westboro from tort liability when protesting outside of the funerals of soldiers.
The Court looked at the content of what was being said. It used as examples, the signs that Phelps and his followers used. None of the signs was directed at the Snyders specifically. They each dealt with broad matters regarding the U.S. and homosexuality.
The Court also pointed out that Phelps and his church had protested at a large number of other funerals, and always on the same subject. This also seemed to indicate to the Court that the subject matter was of public concern.
Finally, the Court noted that Phelps and his people were in a public location in compliance with the directives of the police.
The decision said that even though this speech may have been painful, it is protected by the Constitution.
Accordingly, the decision of the Fourth Circuit was upheld and the case was dismissed in favor of Phelps and Westboro.