WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday that members of a fundamentalist church have a free-speech right to hold anti-gay protests at military funerals to promote their view that God hates America for tolerating homosexuality.
In a case pitting free-speech versus privacy rights, the nation’s highest court held that the picketing at a private funeral and even hurtful protest messages were protected by the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment.
The decision by an 8-1 vote was the latest in a long line of Supreme Court rulings that free-speech rights protected even outrageous or offensive conduct, including the burning of the American flag.
The ruling was a defeat for Albert Snyder, the father of a Marine killed in Iraq in 2006. He sued after the family’s funeral service at a Roman Catholic Church in Westminster, Maryland, drew unwanted protests by members of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas.
The protesters carried signs that stated, “God Hates You,” “You Are Going To Hell,” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.”
Westboro Pastor Fred Phelps and other church members have protested hundreds of funerals of military members killed in Iraq or Afghanistan as part of their religious view that God is punishing America for its tolerance of gays and lesbians.
Phelps founded the church in 1955 and it has about 70 members made up mostly of his relatives.
In the court’s opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts said the church’s beliefs and its signs related to issues of public importance, including political and moral conduct in the United States.
Roberts said the country may not agree with the church’s views, but said it cannot react to the pain the protesters inflicted 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,” he said.
Roberts said the picketers peacefully displayed their signs for about 30 minutes before the funeral, sang hymns and recited Bible verses. None of the picketers entered church property or went to the cemetery and they did not yell or use profanity.
Only Justice Samuel Alito dissented from the ruling. He said the protesters could have gone to the White House, the U.S. Capitol, the Pentagon or the Supreme Court instead of disrupting the family’s funeral.
‘VICIOUS VERBAL ASSAULT’
“Our profound national commitment to free and open debate is not a license for the vicious verbal assault that occurred in this case,” Alito wrote.
Fordham University law professor Abner Greene in New York said, “The court has consistently ruled for speech interests over privacy interests. ... It’s not really all that surprising.”
Snyder sued in 2007 and said he had the right to bury his son in a private, dignified manner, free from unwanted disruption or harassment.
A jury awarded Snyder $10.9 million in damages for invasion of privacy and infliction of emotional distress, an amount cut by a federal judge to $5 million.
The Supreme Court ruled Snyder cannot collect any damages and overturned the jury’s verdict on free-speech grounds.
The American Civil Liberties Union and more than 20 news organizations supported the church, saying free-speech rights protected even outrageous, offensive or unpopular messages.
Veterans groups, more than 40 U.S. senators and nearly all of the 50 states that now limit protests at military funerals supported Snyder.
Sarah Palin, the 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee, criticized the ruling, saying on Twitter it lacked “common sense & decency” by allowing hate messages at military funerals.
The Supreme Court case is Snyder v. Phelps, No. 09-751.
Editing by Eric Beech