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Location: Tallahassee, Florida, United States welcomes all opinions from any religion or viewpoint in the common appreciation of Chick tracts. This blog, however, will highlight religious events and controversies that would be of special interest to regular Chick readers. You don't have to agree with them or each other, but if you read Chick tracts or Battlecry, you might expect these type stories to be addressed. (Sorry, no personal attacks allowed.) All main postings are from writers and any responses are from the public

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Fundy Demonstrators Win In Court

The United States Supreme Court did what it had to do Wednesday when it affirmed Fred Phelps' constitutional right to preach his anti-gay gospel at military funerals on behalf of the Westboro Baptist Church. Indeed, you could argue, as Chief Justice John Roberts did, that the free speech protections of the First Amendment were designed for this very case -- where a small minority seeks to dramatically express itself on political issues in a way the rest of the country considers outrageous or even "brutalizing," as Justice Samuel Alito aptly put it in his angry (and lonely) dissent.

The Court's 8-1 ruling in Snyder v. Phelps, which permits Phelps to use the First Amendment as a shield against tort liability, thereby recognizes and replenishes a fundamental truth about American law and the foundational document upon which it is based. Political speech, in a public place, peacefully expressed, is where the lofty platitudes about "freedom" and "liberty" meet the hard truth about placards near a military funeral which say "Thank God for Dead Soldiers." Four of the Court's conservatives and four of its progressive justices all agreed: the signs can stay.

If it is of any solace to those of you who, like Justice Alito, are infuriated by the result here, what helped spare Phelps and company from a $5 million tort judgment was not the value of their placarded message at Lance Cpl. Matthew A. Snyder's 2006 funeral. "While these messages may fall short of refined social or political commentary," was all Chief Justice John Roberts would say about that in his majority opinion, before conceding that the issues the church highlighted -- "the political and moral conduct of the United States and its citizens, the fate of our Nation, homosexuality in the military, and scandals involving the Catholic clergy -- are matters of public import."

Instead, paradoxically, what ensured victory for the church at the constitutional level were the limitations and restrictions placed upon its picketing members at the time of the Snyder funeral. The Phelps family won twice in court -- don't forget, the Supreme Court affirmed a lower court ruling -- because the church's message was diluted by all sorts of preconditions which prevented members from protesting at the gravesite during the funeral itself. They had a right to be where they were. They obeyed the rules. Here's how the Chief Justice wrote it up:

The church had notified the authorities in advance of its intent to picket at the time of the funeral, and the picketers complied with police instructions in staging their demonstration. The picketing took place within a 10- by 25-foot plot of public land adjacent to a public street, behind a temporary fence. That plot was approximately 1,000 feet from the church where the funeral was held. Several buildings separated the picket site from the church. The Westboro picketers displayed their signs for about 30 minutes before the funeral began and sang hymns and recited Bible verses. None of the picketers entered church property or went to the cemetery. They did not yell or use profanity, and there was no violence associated with the picketing.
That was back in 2006. Since then, states and local municipalities all across the country have enacted more funeral protest regulations which limit the ability of protesters like Phelps to impact the experiences of those mourning their loved ones. The American landscape now is dotted with rules designed to minimize the communicative -- the brutalizing -- force of the church's message. That ought to come as some solace to Justice Alito as well. To paraphrase from "Fiddler of the Roof," lawmakers everywhere are humming the same spiritual: "May the Lord protect and keep Fred Phelps ... far away from us!"
After the ruling, Margie Phelps, a member of the church who is also a lawyer, and who argued the case forcefully for years on behalf of Westboro Baptist, told CBS Radio News what she would like to tell the Snyder family now that they've lost their case. "This was a fool's errand. It was un-American as anything you could have done. That boy is still dead.... Now get down on your knees, mourn for your sins, repent and obey," cackled Phelps, the lawyer, the despised victor in a constitutional showdown they'll be talking about until the next military funeral case gets filed in federal court.

Now the big question is will the Phelps realize that just because they CAN protest at such events, does that mean they SHOULD. See Chick's THE TRIAL.


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