By John W. Whitehead
"You can't preach the Bible without preaching the hatred of God."
-- Pastor Fred Phelps
The U.S. Supreme Court's decision to hear Snyder v. Phelps, a case dealing with anti-gay protests at the funerals of American soldiers, is stirring up debate over whether the privacy rights of grieving families trumps the free speech rights of demonstrators.
The case arose after members of the anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church picketed the Maryland funeral of Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, who was killed in combat in Iraq on March 3, 2006. As part of their protests, church members held up signs during Snyder's funeral which stated, among other things, "God Hates the USA/Thank God for 9/11," "Fag Troops," "Priests Rape Boys," and "Thank God for Dead Soldiers."
Understandably grief-stricken and outraged over Westboro's theatrics, Snyder's father, Albert, filed suit against Westboro Baptist Church and was awarded more than $10 million in damages. That amount was later thrown out by a federal appeals court, which ruled that Westboro's signs could not reasonably be understood to be referring directly to Snyder and his son, who was not gay. As distasteful as Phelps' rhetoric might be, stated the court, it constituted protected speech that focused on issues of national debate.
Distasteful is a mild description of Westboro's anti-gay protests. For example, during staged protests over Memorial Day weekend at Arlington National Cemetery, members of Phelps' group sing "God Hates America" to the tune of "God Bless America" and hold signs that read "God is America's terror," "Thank God for dead soldiers" and "You're going to hell."
Phelps and his Westboro congregants have become old pros at staging these funeral protests. In fact, since 1991 (according to its website), Westboro's members have carried out 42,840 demonstrations at homosexual parades and other events, including more than 200 military funerals of troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Insisting that God is killing American soldiers in order to punish America for its openness to homosexuality, church members have proclaimed, "You turned the country over to fags, these soldiers are coming home in body bags."
As morally repugnant and unpatriotic as Westboro's protests might be, they have nonetheless managed to garner a great deal of publicity--something Phelps, who started the Topeka, Kansas-based church in 1955, clearly loves. Consisting mainly of Phelps and his extended family, Westboro Baptist Church became infamous in 1991 for its "God Hates Fags" message, which is also the name of its website. As the website explains, "By the time a person reaches the state of hard core, defiant, unrepentant, homosexual lifestyle, God has washed His hands of that person. God does not hate them because they are homosexuals; they are homosexuals because God hates them."
Yet it wasn't until the controversial death of Mathew Shepard in 1998 that Westboro attained a level of public notoriety. Shepard, a 21-year-old Wyoming college student, was brutally beaten and left for dead, reportedly because he was gay. Westboro members picketed Shepard's funeral and the murder trial of the men who had killed him with signs stating that Shepard was in hell for being gay.
However, Westboro not only condemns those who are openly homosexual but also those who do not speak out against homosexuality. For example, accusing Chief Justice William Rehnquist of not protecting the United States against homosexuality, they picketed his September 2005 funeral with signs reading "Judge in Hell."
In fact, Westboro sees nearly every national disaster and act of human depravity as God punishing America for its stance on "fags"--and they go so far as to thank God for these tragedies. They insist that the Space Shuttle Columbia crashed as a way to punish the U.S., NASA and the astronauts for not using their position to speak out against homosexuality. They offered prayers of thanksgiving after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and even traveled to New York City to protest rescue efforts, mock victims and urge that those who were still alive should be left there to die. They also praised the devastation resulting from the tsunami in Asia and Hurricane Katrina as God's way of punishing those who have let the "fags" take over the world. Most recently, church members protested the District of Columbia's decision to approve gay marriage. Margie Phelps, Fred's daughter, said she is spewing the "righteous, perfect hate of God." Gay marriage, she said, "will be the final straw. This nation will have passed the final line with God and this will be destroyed."
There may be some who see the members of Westboro Baptist Church as representative of Christianity, but they have little to do with true Christianity. As Jesus Christ proclaimed, "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you."
In rejecting Christ's admonitions, Westboro has chosen instead to focus its efforts on spreading hate. Their actions are deplorable, particularly their protests at military funerals. However, whether such tasteless protests are illegal and outside the protection of the First Amendment is another matter altogether--and one that has given rise to a national furor.
Forty-one states have now passed laws limiting demonstrations at funerals. On a national level, federal legislation essentially bars free speech demonstrations within certain distances of cemeteries. This over-reaching law bans "any picketing, any speech, the display of any banner, flag or the distribution of any handbill, pamphlet," etc., at funerals. What this means is that any citizen even engaged in such nondisruptive expression as carrying an American flag while mourning the death of a slain soldier could also be in violation of the law. Moreover, anyone violating this law would face up to a $100,000 fine and up to a year in prison.
Still, it must be remembered that James Madison, who authored the First Amendment, noted that the purpose of the Amendment was to protect the minority against the majority. And as Madison knew very well, the minority is often made up of extremists who have nothing better to do than foster hate through speech--albeit constitutionally protected speech.
Simply put, tolerance toward the speech of people like Phelps shows that freedom still survives in America. Robust free speech--even of the extreme variety--in the open marketplace of ideas is one of the few hopes we have as citizens, and it is something we must protect. As the great French dissident and writer Voltaire once observed, "I may disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."