US Supreme Court to rule in military funeral protest case

Court to rule in military funeral protest case

By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 8, 2010; 12:42 PM

The Supreme Court announced Monday that it will review whether the anti-gay protests at funerals of American soldiers are protected by the First Amendment.

The case is brought by a Maryland father whose son's 2006 funeral was picketed by members of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan. Westboro pastor Fred Phelps contends that the deaths of American soldiers are punishment for the nation's tolerance for homosexuality.

Phelps and members of his church -- which consists primarily of his family members -- have picketed at funerals across the country, carrying signs that read "Thank God for dead soldiers" and "Semper fi fags."

A jury in Baltimore awarded Albert Snyder more than $10 million in damages, an amount later cut in half and then thrown out by U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Richmond.

The three-judge panel said the signs could not be reasonably understood to be referring directly to Snyder and his son, Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew A. Snyder. And the court said that as distasteful as it might find Phelps's rhetoric, it was protected as speech about issues in the national debate.

"Even if the language of these signs could reasonably be read to imply an assertion about Snyder or his son, 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," the court said.

The case, Snyder v. Phelps, will be argued in the court's term that begins next October.

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