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Court considers anti-gay protests at funerals

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Supreme Court on Wednesday considered whether a church has the legal right to stage anti-gay protests at U.S. military funerals to promote its claim that God is angry at America for tolerance toward homosexuals.

In an important test of free-speech versus privacy rights, the court heard arguments on whether a protest message and picketing at the private funeral, although considered offensive by many, were protected by the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment.

Albert Snyder, the father of a Marine killed in Iraq in 2006, appealed to the Supreme Court 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,” and “You Are Going To Hell.”

Westboro Pastor Fred Phelps and other church members have protested at 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.

The U.S. military has a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, under which gays and lesbians can serve as long as they do not make their sexuality known. Snyder’s 20-year-old son, Matthew, was not gay.

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“This is a case about exploiting a private family’s grief,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said to Margie Phelps, the pastor’s daughter and the lawyer who argued the case.

“Why should the First Amendment tolerate exploiting this Marine’s family when you have so many other forums for getting across your message?” Ginsburg asked.

Civil liberties experts said important free-speech issues were at stake, protecting even outrageous, offensive conduct.

Steven Shapiro of the American Civil Liberties Union, which supports the church, said, “The First Amendment was designed to protect unpopular speech.” Veterans groups, meanwhile, support Snyder.

Phelps said the church members showed “great circumspection” during the protest and they had been engaged in a matter of robust public debate “about dying soldiers and the morals of the nation.”

Phelps’s church, founded in 1955, has about 70 members consisting mostly of his children, grandchildren or in-laws. Phelps, 80, and his followers have protested at more than 200 military funerals, according to court documents.

Jocob Phelps holds up a placard as he protests for his side of the Snyder V. Phelps case outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington October 6, 2010. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Sean Summers, the attorney representing Snyder, said the father had the right to bury his son in a private, dignified manner, free from unwanted disruption or harassment.

A lower court had awarded Snyder $5 million in damages for invasion of privacy and inflicting emotional distress, but that ruling was appealed by the church and the case went to the Supreme Court.

Summers said the father became upset after the protest had been broadcast on local television and the church group posted an item about it on its website.

Justice Stephen Breyer said the Internet aspect of the case troubled him because the church made “very obnoxious” comments about private individuals.

“To what extent can they put that on the Internet?” Breyer asked. “I don’t know what the rules ought to be.”

Chief Justice John Roberts told Phelps that the Snyder funeral had been selected as a way to get maximum publicity for the church’s message, not for any connection to a matter of public debate.

New Justice Elena Kagan, who was appointed by President Barack Obama, questioned how far the group could go.

Could it pick a wounded soldier and demonstrate at his home, workplace and church, saying offensive or outrageous things and following him around day-to-day? Kagan asked.

Phelps answered that non-speech activity like stalking would not be allowed.

The justices gave no clear indication of how they would rule. A decision is expected before the middle of next year.

Editing by David Storey and Jackie Frank