The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

National and world

April 13, 2010

Father wages court battle against funeral protests

YORK, Pa. — Some nights Albert Snyder wakes up at 3 a.m. Other nights he doesn’t sleep at all, tormented by thoughts of the hateful signs carried by a fundamentalist church outside his Marine son’s funeral.

“Thank God for Dead Soldiers.”

“You’re Going to Hell.”

“Semper Fi Fags.”

Hundreds of grieving families have been targeted by the Westboro Baptist Church, which believes military deaths are the work of a wrathful God who punishes the United States for tolerating homosexuality.

Most mourners try to ignore the taunts. But Snyder couldn’t let it go. He became the first to sue the church to halt the demonstrations, and he’s pursued the group farther than anyone else.

Now, more than four years after his son died in a Humvee accident in Iraq, Snyder’s legal battle is headed to the Supreme Court. And his tireless efforts have drawn support from across the country, including a wave of donations after he was ordered to pay the church’s court costs — a $16,500 judgment that the congregation plans to use for more protests.

Lance Cpl. Matthew A. Snyder, 20, was not gay. But for the Westboro church, any dead soldier is fair game. Pastor Fred Phelps oversees a congregation of 70 to 80 members — mostly his children and grandchildren. They consider themselves prophets, and they insist the nation is doomed.

As Snyder sees it, Westboro isn’t engaging in constitutionally protected speech when it pickets funerals. He argues that Phelps and his followers are disrupting private assemblies and harassing people at their most vulnerable — behavior that’s an incitement to violence.

“This is more than free speech. This is like yelling, ’Fire!’ in a crowded theater. Somebody’s going to get hurt,” Snyder said, his voice rising and eyes welling with tears.

Snyder’s lawsuit accuses the Topeka, Kan., church of invading his privacy and intentionally inflicting emotional distress. He has the backing of his ex-wife and his two daughters, but Snyder insisted on being the only plaintiff.

Except for the 40 hours per week he works selling industrial equipment, the case takes up nearly all his time. He says it’s more stressful than a second full-time job.

Snyder, who lives in York, about 85 miles west of Philadelphia, is soft-spoken and polite. But anger and sadness flare up quickly, with little warning. The litigation has forced him to relive the anguish of his son’s death, and his grief is still raw.

“It’s still very emotional,” Snyder said in an interview at his attorney’s office. “It’s like I constantly relive this every day, and I just wonder sometimes, when this is all over, what I’m going to do with that void. Will the grieving process begin?”

The fight has taken its toll on Snyder’s health. The broad-chested 54-year-old has struggled with clinical depression and diabetes.

Snyder fought back against the church in part because he felt Westboro paid special attention to his son. Several weeks after the funeral, the pastor’s daughter, Shirley Phelps-Roper, wrote in an online diatribe that Snyder and his ex-wife taught their son “to defy his creator.”

Westboro also protests nonmilitary events, such as the 2007 funeral of the Rev. Jerry Falwell, and the deaths of 29 miners last week in West Virginia. The group first grabbed widespread notice in 1998, when members appeared outside the funeral of Matthew Shepard, the gay University of Wyoming student whose murder drew national attention.

Lawyers Sean E. Summers and Craig T. Trebilcock, both military veterans, agreed to take Snyder’s case pro bono. They warned him about the emotional toll of a long legal dispute.

Snyder won the first round decisively, when a jury in federal court in Baltimore awarded him $10.9 million in damages in October 2007. A judge later reduced the award to $5 million.

Last September, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the verdict, ruling Westboro’s protest was constitutionally protected speech.

The Supreme Court agreed last month to consider whether the protesters’ actions, no matter how provocative and upsetting, are protected by the First Amendment. The case will be argued in the fall.

Then something unexpected happened: The appeals court ordered Snyder to pay Westboro $16,510 in court costs. While it’s not unusual for the losing party in a civil case to be required to pay some costs, it rarely happens when an individual sues a private entity, especially when the case is still active, experts say.

Margie Jean Phelps, one of Fred Phelps’ daughters and an attorney, will argue the case before the Supreme Court. She has said the church plans to use the money from Snyder to stage more protests. That’s what’s so upsetting to Snyder, who says he would drop the matter if the church stopped picketing funerals.

Snyder has received plenty of publicity since filing the lawsuit, but interest intensified after the court-ordered payment.

Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly pledged to pay the entire $16,510, and the American Legion has raised more than $20,000. Every day, hundreds of envelopes arrive at Summers’ office. Snyder plans to use the money for other court fees and to donate what’s left over to veterans.

Not everyone is on Snyder’s side, even if they find Westboro’s protests loathsome.

They point to the undisputed facts of the case. Westboro contacted police before its protest, which was conducted in a designated area on public land — 1,000 feet from the church where the Mass was held in Westminster, Md.

The protesters — Phelps and six family members — broke no laws. Snyder knew they were present, but he did not see their signs or hear their statements until he turned on the news at his son’s wake.

Jonathan M. Turley, a George Washington University law professor, asked his constitutional law class to grapple with the case. At first, the entire class was sympathetic to Snyder. But after they dug deeper, they concluded that Westboro’s speech was protected by the First Amendment.

“Once you get down to trying to draw the line between privacy and free speech, it becomes clear that a ruling against Westboro could create the danger of a slippery slope for future courts,” Turley said.

Turley, who studies the Supreme Court closely, said it’s difficult to predict how the justices will rule.

Phelps-Roper has no doubt the court will favor Westboro. “If that case can prevail, there is no First Amendment left,” she said.

Some military families see no reason why such protests cannot be restricted.

“I don’t think these people should be allowed to come in and disrupt a family’s grief,” said Diane Salyers of Sims, Ark., whose son’s funeral was picketed by Westboro in 2007. Snyder “speaks for all of us who’ve been affected by these people.”

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