I am an advocate for free speech and, of course, freedom of the press. A recent ruling this week may not exactly reinforce free speech, but it strikes a blow for good taste and compassion.
A federal jury in Maryland awarded the father of a Marine killed in Iraq $11 million in damages after Westboro Baptist Church protested at his son’s funeral. The family of Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder will receive $2.9 million in compensatory damages and another $8 million in punitive damages from the church members.
Is the church anti-war? No. They protest at soldiers’ funerals, by some estimates as many as 300 in the past two years, because the government and the nation condone homosexuality. They claim that soldiers are killed because the country tolerates homosexuality.
They make no bones about getting right up in the face of grieving and mourning soldiers’ families, complete with placards declaring, “Thank God for dead soldiers,” and having young children, some barely big enough to hold the signs, hold up those signs.
Look, I’m not gonna preach on the morality of someone’s lifestyle. If the members of Westboro Baptist Church believe that homosexuality is the ruin of our nation, fine. So be it. They’re entitled to their point of view.
But to do what they do at the funerals of soldiers, those same young men and women who are killed in the line of duty to give Fred Phelps and his family — he’s the founder of the church and nearly all of its members are members of his family — the ability to stand in front of a church with their signs espousing their hatred for the way the nation is being run is reprehensible.
A couple of years ago, they came to Hinesville to protest a funeral. It happened to be for the highest-ranking officer killed in action up to that date, Col. William Wood. Col. Wood was killed by a roadside bomb after he rushed to the scene where a similar explosive had mortally wounded one of his young captains.
They met with Hinesville city officials who said, OK, you have a right to protest. But that family has a right to mourn their loved one in peace, too. So the church members were stationed a couple of hundred yards down the road. Main Street was blocked off for them. A SWAT team was ready less than 50 yards away just in case. Not that the Westboro Baptist Church folks might do something, but in a town steeped in the military and with thousands of military families around — and a handful of Army wives in my office only a stone’s throw away — but that something might happen to them. One of them, whose husband and brother were in Iraq at the time, was in tears over the Westboro crowd even being in the middle of the street and holding up those signs.
As it was, it was uneventful. The funeralgoers’ vision was blocked by the edge of the church as they moved to the fellowship hall. Eventually, the Westboro folks packed up and left. They had another funeral to protest.
Lance Cpl. Snyder’s father Albert said the protesters “ruined” his son’s funeral. So he took action.
It’s not likely the decision will put the brakes on the church’s protests. But maybe it will make their exercise of their right of free speech a little more expensive to carry out.
If you want to believe that America is headed to hell in a handbasket because of the way some choose to live their lives, you have the right. But don’t demean and soil the loss of those brave folks who are fighting and dying so you and others around the world can have that right to think how you want.