Funeral protests disrespect honorable soldiers

<p>Westobor (AP Photo/James A. Finley)</p>
Sara Phelps of the Wesboro Baptist Church protests a funeral May 19, 2006 in Shumway, Ill. (AP Photo/James A. Finley)

Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder died March 3, 2006, in a non-combat related vehicle accident in Iraq. Unfortunately, his family was not able to lay him to rest with the dignity and honor every soldier deserves.

Members of the Westboro Baptist Church tastelessly interrupted his service, carrying signs that read, “God Hates You,” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.”

The Westboro protesters, whose church is in Topeka, Kan., frequently picket the funerals of military officials and soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan because the church’s leaders assert that God is killing soldiers to punish America for condoning homosexuality.

According to the church’s Web site: “The Westboro Baptist Church has conducted over 34,000 peaceful demonstrations opposing the fag lifestyle of soul-damning, nation-destroying filth. America is rotten and our soldiers are rotten. You should be thankful when God deals with them.”

Poor decision by Court of Appeals

Snyder’s family sued the church and went to trial in 2007, alleging privacy invasion, intentional infliction of emotional distress and civil conspiracy. A jury awarded the family $2.9 million in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive damages.

Westboro Church appealed the case, and the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the judgments a year later, siding with the church’s claim that its First Amendment rights had been violated.

To add insult to injury, March 26 the Court of Appeals ordered Albert Snyder, the Marine’s father, to pay $16,510 to the church for court fees.

The Court of Appeal’s decision is an absolute disgrace to our court system.

First of all, there needs to be a fine line between verbal assault and freedom of speech. It’s obvious the people of the Westboro Chruch were intentionally trying to hurt Snyder and his family. It’s obvious they were disturbing the peace by disrupting the funeral.

This goes beyond free speech; it is malicious and criminal harassment.

Margie Phelps, daughter of the Westboro Church’s founder, is the attorney representing the church in its appeals. She said the money the church receives from Snyder will be used to finance further demonstrations.

“They wanted to shut down the picketing, so now they’re going to finance it,” she said.

Snyder is taking his case to the Supreme Court, which he should. The church’s demonstrations are an act of emotional violence and are destructive toward society. It’s a shame that a court ruling will fund future protests. I sincerely hope the Supreme Court does the right thing and reverses the decision.

Funerals are not the place for protest

Funerals are a time and place where people practice their faith while mourning the loss of a loved one. They are private gatherings and nobody should use a funeral as a forum for their messages.

How these people can picket and say such awful things while using the name of God is beyond me. I’m not sure what Bible they are reading, but it certainly isn’t the same one I know.

First John 4:8 says, “Whoever is without love does not know God, for God is love.” Love does not mean bringing signs reading, “You’re going to hell,” and “Soldiers die, God laughs,” to a soldier’s funeral.

I wish the Westboro Baptist Church would appreciate the sacrifice soldiers make for their country, giving their lives to ensure our rights and liberties.

You may hate war, but you should show love to the soldiers. They deserve our respect.

Zach Pagano can be reached at

38 Replies to “Funeral protests disrespect honorable soldiers”

  1. Thanks for a great article. I agree with all your points. These people are the scum of the earth and for the court system to reward them is beyond crazy.

  2. I do not support the Westboro Baptist Church. However, I think you are being too quick to criticize the courts, especially considering that there was no reference in this article to the actually ruling.

  3. “The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the judgments a year later, siding with the church’s claim that its First Amendment rights had been violated.”

    I think that pretty much sums up the ruling. You’re not being too quick to criticize, in fact you’ve hit the nail on the head. Overturning an original ruling is one thing. Making this man pay the people who caused him and his family so much pain is crossing the line. He shouldn’t even think about writing a check until he hear from the Supreme Court.

  4. Thanks for this; it’s all just such a shame. A high school classmate was killed by an IED in Iraq August of 2007, and their presence was a distraction from the funeral. Thankfully Mankato only allowed them to be in certain areas, so many people didn’t even see them. The Patriot Guard attended as well, which was a blessing. Ultimately, WBC is very misguided and their actions are hurting those who have already been hurt a great deal.

  5. I think the appeals court made the right decision. Everyone has the right to free speech.

  6. Josh,

    “I’ve got my rights!” How often have you heard that one? It is an oft-used expression in an attempt to justify some foolish deed or action. There is a problem in this reasoning.

    Just because I CAN doesn’t mean that I SHOULD! The apostle Paul helps us with this: “Everything is permissible for me, but not everything is beneficial. Everything is permissible for me, but I will not let myself be mastered by anything.” (I Cor. 6:12)

  7. I found a transcript of the appeal. Its been an interesting read so far. Since our opinions should be based in facts, here are some facts that I found interesting…

    “It was undisputed at trial that Defendants com- plied with local ordinances and police directions with respect to being a certain distance from the church.”

    Always good when protesters follow rules.

    “It was established at trial that Snyder did not actually see the signs until he saw a television program later that day with footage of the Phelps family at his son’s funeral.”

    So, the Snyder family didn’t even know the protesters were at their sons funeral until they saw it on the news.

    Also, take a few moments to write down how many protesters you think were at the funeral. Ready? It was a grand total of 6.

    I had a very different picture of this event in my head then what actually happened. Maybe you did too. No conclusions yet though, I got 30 more pages to read.

    Almost forgot the link:

  8. “Josh-
    Yes, we as Americans do have the right to free speech. But with rights also come duties. We cannot imnpede others rights in exercising our own. The WBC in its protests is impeding the families of fallen soldiers own right to free speech as well as their right to exercise religion. Solemnly and peacefully mourning the dead has long been a part of many religions and these protests destroy this possibility. A public funeral is an expression of grief and could be construed as “free speech.” Don’t you think we need to be a little more reasonable in how these rights are applied? Just because we have the right to free speech does not allow us to walk down the street shouting profanities. It also does not protect libelous statements which many of WBC’s placards could be considered. I wonder what the court would rule if a KKK group protested a prominent black person’s funeral holding signs saying “God hates (N-word).” Apply some logic before you immediatly reach for the “rights” card next time.”

  9. Paula-

    Thank you for sharing that link. I look forward to reading it over. In response to the allegation that the signs were not seen by the family until after the event, I urge you to put yourself in the shoes of the family. Remember they filed suit against WBC alleging “privacy invasion, intentional infliction of emotional distress and civil conspiracy.” Regardless of when the family saw the signs, I think that emotional distress would be present and their privacy clearly invaded. Just following the “rules” does not mean everything is A-ok.

  10. Sorry, meant to say Paul, not Paula. I believe there was some confusion a while back on another article’s comments so this is why I mistyped.

  11. The fact is, this took place at a family’s funeral for their son. They specifically traveled to this funeral, and carried vile signs. It was intentional and they did conflict emotional distress, it doesn’t matter that the family saw it on the TV later. The distress was there. It’s not like they were blogging about it, they were outside of the funeral!

  12. Finished reading. Here are the main points of the courts ruling. 

    “No reasonable reader could interpret any of these signs as asserting actual and objectively verifiable facts about Snyder or his son.” (p 26)

    “The statements are protected by the Constitution for two additional reasons: they do not assert provable facts about an individual, and they clearly contain imaginative and hyperbolic rhetoric intended to spark debate about issues with which the Defendants are concerned.” (p 26)

    For these reasons, the court deemed the signs and the accompanying website (they blogged about it too) to be protected by the first amendment. Obviously they go into more detail (examining every sign that was shown at the protest and the language of the web-article), but thats the main idea. Also, the court referenced and examined several other cases with similar verdict, so basically this isn’t anything new. 

    So, yeah. I agree with the courts on this one. Their argument was much better then Zack’s, especially considering that Zack’s argument seems to be founded on the claim that the WBC disrupted the funeral, which is false. 

  13. Paul, I’m going to have to disagree with you on this one. I think Zach is making the argument that it’s wrong to make the family pay court fees to the people who protested their son’s funeral. Also, he’s arguing that the Westboro loons are contradicting themselves. They say they are Christians, but their protests are as opposite to Christ’s message as you can get. These people are just looking for attention, and they shouldn’t use a soldier’s funeral as the platform.

    I should remind you that the Supreme Court has upheld restrictions on speech outside of abortion clinics. So was appeals court saying that an abortion is a more sacred act than a man burring his son?

  14. It is my belief that this group formed a church only for tax purposeses. They are not CHRISTIANS. If you go to Topeka on a Sunday, you will see tha children of this group out protesting other churches. Bible sdtudy to them is picking. They are just out looking for a fight so that they can get some money. It really makes me sick.

  15. This is a great article Zach! I read about Al Snyder’s fight against Westboro Baptist Church a couple weeks ago and was appalled! WBC should realize that these soldiers are fighting for the exact freedom and rights that they use to defend their disgusting protests. Respect should be given to our fallen soldiers and their families who gave the ultimate sacrifice for us to live the way we do.

    Here is a link to the facebook group to support Al Snyder’s fight against Westboro Church:

  16. Anthony,
    I can agree that the WBC are loons.

    I’m not sure what your getting at with your second comment, mostly because I don’t know what particular cases you are referring to. Links?

  17. Paul,

    Hill vs. Colorado in 2000. The Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment right to free speech was not violated by a Colorado law limiting protest outside of a “healthcare” facility.

    What I was getting at with my second comment was, it’s ridiculous that the courts would think an abortion is more sacred than a funeral. Free speech has been restricted outside of abortion clinics. However, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals made it clear, with their decision, that restricting protestors at a military funeral is violating first amendment rights. Really? You can be protected under the first amendment at a military funeral, but not at an abortion clinic?

    The Supreme Court should do the right thing and reverse the decision in favor of Mr. Snyder.

  18. In the Hill vs. Colorado decision though, it references the restriction is content neutral because it limits where people can protest (i.e. 100 feet away from the clinic) rather than what they can say when they protest; in the WBC case, the decision states that they complied with police orders to stay a certain distance away from the funeral, so I think the decisions are actually parallel rather than contradictory.

    I fully believe that the church’s actions are morally repugnant, disrespectful, and exhibit a truly disgusting homophobia, but I worry about legally holding them financially responsible for causing (even justified) offense, given that they were protesting in a public area, and complied with police orders

  19. Where are the laws restricting protestors to be a certain distance away from funerals? Where is the respect for the dead?

    If these people hate America so bad, why don’t they just leave? It makes no sense to protest the funerals of soldiers who fought and died to protect their right to hide behind the first amendment in the first place!

  20. Kathryn, I hope to ease your worries by indicating the existence of Intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED), a tort claim. There is legal justification for seeking compensation for the actions of the WBC. Their protest location may have been legally justified, but their conduct should still be evaluated. It seems that the WBC sought to cause distress, and in succeeding to do so should compensate the grieving family. I believe the applicable term is punitive damages. 

  21. Cory- I’m not certain if that comment was directed toward me or not, but if it was, I agree with you. I think the notion that God hates gay people is patently absurd. I think the idea that God would allow soldiers today because there because of it is even more absurd.
    I just think given that there currently (as far as I know) are no laws regulating how far away one can protest from a funeral that they violated, the basis of the complaint seems to hinge on the content; and that to me seems problematic. I do think this is good reason to think that legislative regulation of protest at funerals is called for. Actually, I think this is really good evidence that we need legal protections against discrimination for GLBTQ people too.

  22. Brett, maybe you know more about this so could help me out, but from what little I’ve heard about IIED before, the circumstances are extremely limited in which it can be sucessfully applied.

  23. (Sorry, above I meant to type “that God would allow soliders *to die because of it is even more absurd*”)

  24. Kathryn-I was just adding my two cents, I didn’t mean to direct anything toward you.

    Good point Brett.

  25. I’ll be the first to admit I’m not that well-versed in law, but I do believe the tort’s existence alone helps to reevaluate the situation. As much as I support free speech, I disagree with its malicious use in order to cause mental pain, particularly to a grieving family. By virtue of the tort’s existence I can safely say I am not alone in my support of this potential limitation to “free speech” even if it is rarely applied.

  26. I’ve been doing some research about the IIED tort, and it states: One who by extreme and outrageous conduct intentionally or recklessly causes severe emotional distress to another is subject to liability for such emotional distress.

    I’ve also found that the WBC posted an essay on its Web site entitled “The Burden of Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew A. Snyder.” In the essay, statements indicated that Albert and his wife “raised Matthew for the devil,” “RIPPED that body apart and taught Matthew to defy his Creator, to divorce, and to commit adultery,” “taught him how to support the largest pedophile machine in the history of the entire world, the Roman Catholic monstrosity,” and “taught Matthew to be an idolator.”

    With the protest and the essay, there’s no longer any doubt that the WBC had an intent to cause emotional stress.

  27. God bless our troops, they are doing a wonderful job. Shame on those who protest under the guise of religion, and disrespect those who defend our freedoms.

  28. Protesting at anyones funeral is distasteful and shouldn’t be allowed. It’s not limiting free speech. There is still a time and place but a funeral is not it.

  29. I came across this article on the wall of the “Make it illegal to protest at military funerals” facebook group. Several people kept re-posting it, so I decided to give it a glance. I was highly impressed by the article and plan to send it to everyone I know.

    There is a time and a place for everything. I am all for free speech, but it is highly inappropriate and rude to interfere in a family’s last few moments to grieve & release their loved one to the grave. It is even more insulting and inhumane to incur costs on the grieving family when they stand up for that opportunity for respect. If these demonstrators are so concerned about God’s wrath on mankind due to sinful activities, maybe they should start by following the greatest commandments to love God, and to love others as they love themselves. “If they have not love….they gain nothing!” See 1 Corinthians 13.

    Thank you Zach for standing up for the troops.

  30. What possible impact do you think an article on a university website is going to have on this issue? Obviously the majority of our university -and nation – thinks the WBC are lunatics. There’s not a thing anyone here can say that would make an impact. Can we focus on relevant issues?

  31. Carla,
    Take a look at the conversation this article has sparked. I’d say that’s impact. I don’t think the article was simply about giving reasons why the people of the WBC are lunatics. It’s about finding a line between free speech and hate speech. It’s about soldiers not being able to be laid to rest in peace. Unlike you, I can’t speak for the majority of the university or nation. But I have a hunch they’d think it’s a relevant issue.

  32. Carla-

    Anthony hit the nail on the head here. The fact is, this IS a relevant issue! Put yourself in the shoes of the greiving families. Do you think the issue is relevant to them? Yes, the far majority can agree that the WBC are lunatics. Does this mean we shouldn’t talk about it and do what we can to stop them? Absolutly not! Hopefully a Supreme Court ruling in favor of the Snyder family will force the WBC to stop having these disgusting protests and giving Christians everywhere a bad name.

  33. I agree with Anthony and John.

    I dont think the founding fathers intended freedom of speech to be used to disrespect people when they are grieving. Something has to be done about this, and discussion is a great starting point.

  34. the problem with this is that if you use the westborough religious nuts as a starting point, it opens the door to other things like restricting what you’re allowed to say about the president, or not allowing protests in general…. I’m not saying i think what they’re doing is right in any way, but freedom of speech is freedom of speech, no matter how you cut it. Some people will continue to abuse that right, just like you could say that if we didn’t have freedom of religion, then the men who flew planes into the world trade center wouldn’t have done that because they’d be “good christian boys” 

  35. Actually, there were seven(adults and children) that traveled 1,100 miles across half a dozen states, to simply harass a family. And WBC hates everyone that has different beliefs, other than their own. They have also been seen to be holding signs that say “God Hates Jews,” however the Old Testament clearly states that the Jewish people are God’s chosen people and that they’re guaranteed a spot in heaven. WBC is simply tormenting these families almost for fun, it seems. They have no real reason to be doing this. They say they’re doing “God’s work” but I don’t think the Lord is proud of them for humiliating families when they’re the most vulnerable and burying their children.

  36. I am a baptist that supports the military, the church I attend supports the troops and military. There is a time to protest and a time not to. The pastor of that church should know this. He should also know what the bible says about mourning and letting ppl mourn for there loved ones. The WBC is a disgrace to the Baptist convention. 

    “They have also been seen to be holding signs that say “God Hates Jews,” however the Old Testament clearly states that the Jewish people are God’s chosen people and that they’re guaranteed a spot in heaven.”

    Because of the agenda of WBC I know most Baptist churches do not support them. I also have a hunch that the baptist convention is not supporting them.
    Cause if they did, WBC would have money to keep on protesting.  

    I know plenty of  baptist preachers that are against what WBC believes in. I hope someday they realize what they are doing is wrong.

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