THE US Supreme Court is considering whether an anti-gay religious group can picket military funerals with signs that read “Thank God for dead soldiers”.
The court is weighing whether the action exercises the group’s right to free speech or invades a grieving family’s privacy.
With large crowds gathered outside, the nine judges heard arguments from a lawyer for the Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church, who said the case was about free speech, and a lawyer for the father of a Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder, who was killed in Iraq in 2006.
Several members of the the church picketed the funeral of 20-year-old Matthew Snyder, whose father, Albert, was at the US Supreme Court today.
“All we wanted to do was bury Matt in a decent, civilised way,” an emotional Mr Snyder told reporters on the footsteps of the court after the hearing.
“But the Phelpses’ conduct was so extreme, it’s beyond the bounds of basic human decency,” he added.
The funeral for the fallen marine was a private event that was disrupted by private individuals who had “specifically targeted the Snyder family by name”, argued Sean Summers, Mr Snyder’s lawyer, argued.
The US Constitution’s first amendment, which grants Americans the right to freedom of speech, had no role to play in the case pitting the Snyder family against the Phelpses, who have disrupted many funerals of US soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, said Mr Summers.
The Westboro Baptists’ lawyer, Margie Phelps, daughter of church patriarch John Phelps, argued that Mr Snyder had intentionally turned his son’s funeral into a public media event and the protesters had shown up to debate with him and others attending the funeral “on the sins of America and the wages of war”.
The First Amendment protected their right to do that, she said.
Margie Phelps told reporters later that publishing an obituary turned a private figure into a public one.
Jacob Phelps, 27, and his nine-year-old cousin Daniel both stood outside the court brandishing signs, one of which read: “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.”
“It’s an awesome day when we are going to uphold our First Amendment rights,” Mr Phelps said – even though the judges were only hearing arguments in the case and will not issue their decision until 2011.
First Amendment advocates, including top media outlets, are watching the case closely, fearing that a negative ruling would clamp down on free expression.
The Washington Post wrote in an editorial: “If Westboro’s vitriol is deemed unworthy of First Amendment protection and a private citizen can sue to silence the church – or shut it down – then everyone’s rights will be eroded.”
The Supreme Court has very rarely limited First Amendment rights, even though most free speech cases involve “unpopular speech, offensive views,” said CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin.
In a landmark case earlier this year, the justices upheld the right to free speech even in videos or pictures depicting extreme acts of cruelty inflicted on animals.
Albert Snyder sued the Westboro Baptists after they staged similar protests to the one at his son’s funeral at other rites for fallen soldiers.
A federal jury found that the church inflicted emotional distress on Mr Snyder and awarded the father of the fallen Marine $US11 million in damages, later lowered to $US5 million.
Last year an appeals court ruled that the church’s actions were protected by the First Amendment.