Dad of a fallen Marine perseveres against protests at military funerals

Albert Snyder says he won't pay court-ordered legal fees of the fundamentalist Westboro Baptist Church, which organizes protests at military funerals. He sued the group after it picketed at his son's funeral in 2006, and the US Supreme Court has agreed to hear his appeal.

Jim Bryant/UPI/File
Brad Nelson, a supporter of Sgt. 1st Class Johnny Walls (L), holds a U.S. flag to block a sign held by a Westboro Baptist Church member protesting the funeral in Port Orchard, Washington on November 30, 2007. The Westboro Baptists Church from Topeka, gained notoriety by demonstrating at military funerals across the country, claiming God is killing troops in Iraq and Afghanistan to punish the United States for tolerating homosexuality.

A father of a Marine killed in Iraq says he won't pay the legal fees of a protest group who picketed at his son's funeral in 2006 – at least not until he hears from the US Supreme Court on the matter.

Albert Snyder, whose son, Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, was killed in Iraq, learned Friday that a federal appeals court is requiring him to pay more than $16,000 in legal fees to the Westboro Baptist Church, a Christian fundamentalist group that demonstrates during military funerals to gain attention for its antigovernment, antihomosexual message. The group rallied at Matthew Snyder’s funeral in March 2006 in Westminster, Md., chanting antigay slogans and carrying signs such as “Thank God for dead soldiers,” says Albert Snyder’s attorney, Sean Summers.

The group was protesting about 30 feet from the church’s main entrance, and Mr. Snyder had to enter through a separate entrance, Mr. Summers says.

Snyder subsequently sued the Westboro group for emotional distress and won a $5 million judgment. But on appeal, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, finding in favor of protecting the protesters' free-speech rights. About three weeks ago, the Supreme Court agreed to take the case and is expected to hear it in the fall. (Last year, the high court had declined to take up the issue.) Meanwhile, the circuit court has ordered Snyder, a salesman, to pay the church’s court expenses.

Snyder, of York, Pa., told Fox News on Tuesday that he would not pay the Westboro Baptist Church "until I hear from the Supreme Court."

“It’s fair to say that they are not getting any Christmas cards from Mr. Snyder,” adds Summers, in a phone interview. “He obviously thinks they are despicable and doesn’t understand why they would target him.”

The Westboro group has been protesting at military members’ funerals for years. The church leader, Fred Phelps, preaches that American deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan are punishment for the nation’s tolerance of homosexuality. (He was among those banned from Britain last year for fostering hatred or extremism.) The protests have nothing to do with the fallen service members' sexual orientation, and the church says its protests are held within a “lawful distance” of the funerals.

Ultimately, say some, the church protests are a matter of constitutionally protected free speech.

“I really don’t see that [the protest] was a violation of the First Amendment [principles]. It was a violation of decorum and good taste and all sorts of other things, but not a violation of the First Amendment,” says Charles Gittins, a civilian lawyer in Virginia.

But Summers argues that his client’s right to peaceful assembly and freedom of religion were infringed by the protests and that, unlike at a public park where people are free to express themselves, a funeral setting draws a “captive audience” that requires attendees to be in a particular location – they can’t simply walk away.

Westboro Baptist Church, which is based in Kansas, plans to protest in Florida on Wednesday, outside a funeral for a Marine killed in Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan on March 22.

“Military funerals have become pagan orgies of idolatrous blasphemy, where they pray to the dunghill gods of Sodom and play taps to a fallen fool,” states a press release posted on the church’s website, announcing the rally at a memorial service for Lance Cpl. Justin Wilson. At the bottom of the press release are printed the words “Thank God for IEDs,” referring to the roadside bombs that have killed thousands of troops in both wars.

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