U.S. News

Top court to decide on anti-gay protests at military funerals

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Supreme Court said on Monday it would decide whether constitutional free-speech rights protected anti-gay protests by members of a Kansas church at funerals for U.S. military members killed in Iraq.

A member of a religious extremist group from Kansas pickets outside the funeral of an Army National Guard soldier who died last Wednesday from injuries he suffered in Iraq in Flushing, Michigan March 11, 2006 file photo. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook

The high court agreed to consider whether the protesters’ message and picketing was protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, even though it was a private family funeral.

The justices said they would hear an appeal by Albert Snyder, the father of a Marine killed in Iraq in 2006. The family’s traditional funeral service was held at St. John’s Catholic Church in Westminster, Maryland.

The funeral for Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder drew picketing by members of the fundamentalist Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas.

Westboro Pastor Fred Phelps and other church members have picketed at funerals of U.S. 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.

As part of the protest at Snyder’s funeral, Phelps and church members carried signs that stated, “God hates the USA,” “America is doomed, “Fag troops’ and “Thank God for dead solders.”

Phelps, the church and two other members were found liable by a U.S. district court for $5 million in damages for invasion of privacy and infliction of emotional distress.

But a U.S. appeals court overturned the award on the grounds that it violated the First Amendment’s free-speech rights.

In appealing to the Supreme Court, Snyder’s attorneys argued that a person attending a family member’s private funeral is entitled to state protection from unwanted communication, such as remarks or displays by picketers.

They said the appeals court decision ignored Snyder’s right to bury his son with dignity and respect.

Attorneys for Phelps and the church said the appeal should be rejected. The picketing occurred more than 1,000 feet from the funeral that was a public event, the church members engaged in speech on public issues and they did not disrupt the funeral.

The Supreme Court is expected to hear arguments and then decide the case during its upcoming term that begins in October.

Editing by Philip Barbara