Crowds have gathered outside the US Supreme Court as the justices considered whether the right to free speech protects an anti-gay religious group that pickets military funerals displaying signs that read: Thank God for dead soldiers.
The Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church has disrupted the funerals of US soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan for years, claiming the wars are divine punishment because the United States tolerates gays, including in the military.
The group has about 75 members and is led by patriarch Fred Phelps, who has 13 children and 54 grandchildren, many of whom are church members.
On Wednesday members of the Phelps clan were outside the Supreme Court waving some of the signs that made them so infamous.
Jacob Phelps, 27, and his nine-year-old cousin Daniel both brandished controversial signs. Fags Doom Nations, read one sign. Thank God for Dead Soldiers, read another.
“It’s an awesome day when we are going to uphold our First Amendment rights,” Phelps said.
Betty Phelps, 57, dismissed military funerals as “political pep rallies.”
“It’s time the nation focused on that and that’s why we are there, to interject some truth and counter the beliefs of the people who go to these funerals,” she said.
Church members have picketed political rallies, music concerts, sporting events and even the Holocaust Museum in the US capital.
The case before the Supreme Court involves the 2006 funeral of 20-year-old Matthew Snyder, a US marine killed in Iraq.
Westboro protesters picketed the funeral and Snyder’s family sued the church. A federal jury found the protest caused mental suffering to Snyder’s father Albert and awarded him nearly $US11 million ($A11.31 million) in damages.
The amount however was reduced to $US5 million ($A5.14 million) when an appeals court ruled that, while the church’s actions were “distasteful and repugnant,” they fell under First Amendment constitutional protections, which cover the right to freedom of religion and freedom of expression.
The Westboro Church claimed Synder was raised by his family “for the devil.”
Albert Synder’s lawyer Sean Summers, argues that Phelps and his church’s right to free speech “should have ended where it conflicted with Mr Snyder’s freedom to participate in his son’s funeral, which was intended to be a solemn religious gathering.”
“I had one chance to bury my son in peace and they took it away from me,” Albert Snyder told the Washington Post.
Plenty of people in the crowd outside the Supreme Court on Wednesday were offended by the actions of the Westboro Church.
“It is their right to express themselves, but it isn’t proper to have these kinds of signs and protests at funerals,” said college student Kianha Manker, 19.
“It’s disrespectful. Even if they want to show their viewpoint there are ways to do that without causing pain and suffering to people who have been affected by someone’s death. Especially a soldier.”
Matthew White, a 25 year-old law student, said he fully respects the First Amendment rights. “But certainly a line is crossed when you are dealing with the privacy rights of others, especially at a funeral,” he said.
White believes that inciteful speech is not protected under First Amendment.
First Amendment advocates are watching the case closely, fearing that a negative ruling would clamp down on free expression. The Supreme Court is expected to rule on the case in early 2011.
Freedom of speech cases, pointed out CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin, often involve “unpopular speech, offensive views” and the Supreme Court has very rarely limited First Amendment rights.
In a landmark case earlier this year, the judges upheld the rights even in the case of videos or pictures depicting extreme cruelty inflicted on animals.