Supreme Court hearing on Westboro Baptist monumental

By Contributing Writer

by: Heather McGraw

In honor of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Harley-Davidson USA is sponsoring nationwide rides to promote awareness of the condition. One of these rides took place on Oct. 2 in Effingham, Ill. It attracted the attention of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., defendants in a Supreme Court case dealing with First Amendment rights.

Westboro Baptists protested the ride wearing bandanas that read “Thank God For Cancer” and T-shirts with their infamous “God Hates Fags” slogan in large block letters. The slogan has come to represent the church’s main ideals—that our country is being punished for accepting homosexuality, among other things.

Because I was in nearby Charleston, Ill., I attended the event with a fellow reporter.  My mother is a breast cancer survivor and many of my closest friends are gay, so it was very hard for me to be at the protest in the role of unbiased journalist.

Thankfully, my mood was lightened when we arrived and saw how many counter-protesters were speaking out against the Westboro Baptists and their message. One positive outcome of what Westboro does is it brings so many others together to oppose them.

Westboro Baptists were protesting the awareness ride because they believe breast cancer is another of God’s punishments of sinners, much like their belief that soldiers dying in Iraq and Afghanistan are killed because they fight for a morally corrupt nation.

The latter idea is what has boosted the group’s prominence in recent years. Westboro Baptists have been in the spotlight lately because of a court case currently being decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The case dates back to March 2006 when the group protested 1,000 feet from the funeral of Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder, who was killed in Iraq. Church members held signs that read “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” and “Semper Fi Fags.” One month later, Snyder’s father, Albert, filed a lawsuit against Fred Phelps and Westboro church for invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress, citing the funeral protest and comments the church made on its website.

In October 2007, a jury ruled in favor of Snyder and he was awarded $10.9 million. In February 2008, a judge reduced the verdict to $5 million. Then, in September 2009, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Phelps, overturning the verdict completely. Snyder appealed his case to the Supreme Court, and in March 2010, the court agreed to take it.

The Supreme Court heard the case on Oct. 6.  Justices met in private on Oct. 8, but a decision is not expected to be announced until the end of their term in summer 2011.

It’s easy to judge this case with our hearts and moral guidelines, but the justices have a tougher job. They must use precedent if possible and rule based on law.

This group does intentionally inflict emotional pain on millions of Americans. However, its most prominent members have law degrees, which make them well-versed in laws concerning free speech and their right to protest, keeping them within their legal limitations. I’m not an advocate for hate speech, but no matter how awful this group and its message appear to be, as long as Westboro church stays within the law, it needs to be protected by it.

A decision against Phelps and the church could cause a slippery slope in First Amendment rulings. To decide against them means a line would have to be drawn somewhere concerning freedom of speech and the right to peaceably assemble, a line almost impossible to draw without either drastically narrowing or widening the rights protected under free speech. This case could be the most important decision the Supreme Court makes this term.

Whatever the court decides, Snyder v. Phelps will be a landmark case that sets historic precedent for the future of First Amendment rights in America.