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Is it freedom of religion and speech? You decide.

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As everyone knows there are groups around that give us all a bad name. Even so-called Christians who, because of their shameful shenanigans, bring ill will and disrepute on all Christians.

Here’s a case in point. A United States Marine, Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder, was killed on March 3, 2006, in the line of duty fighting in Iraq. You can only imagine the grief and emotional distress this tragedy caused the family of this young man, as well as their friends. They arranged for his funeral and guess who showed up? Yep, Fred Phelps and his crowd from the Westboro Baptist Church carrying signs saying God killed this family’s son because he fought for a country that "tolerates homosexuals." There were even signs that said "Thank God for dead soldiers," and "God hates fags."

During the wake for Matthew after the funeral his family turned on the TV to view coverage of the 1,500 person procession and saw those church members waving signs and protesting his funeral. Albert Snyder, Matthew’s father, said he just stood there in shock because he couldn’t believe anyone would do that to soldier’s families.

To add insult to injury the church members posted defamatory information about the Snyders on Westboro Baptist Church’s website. They wrote Albert and his wife had raised Matthew for the devil and taught him to defy his creator, to divorce and commit adultery. Oh, by the way, they also denounced his family for raising Matthew Catholic.

In response, Matthew’s father filed suit against Fred Phelps, the Westboro Baptist Church, Inc., and two of Phelps’ daughters for defamation, invasion of privacy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. On October 31, 2007, the defendants were found liable and the jury awarded the Snyders $2.9 million in compensatory and $6 million in punitive damages, plus an additional $2 million for causing emotional distress. A total judgment of $10.9 million.

The church sought a mistrial because the judge, U.S. District Judge Richard Bennett, stated the First Amendment protection of free speech has limits and the jury must decide whether or not the Westboro Baptist Church’s actions would be highly offensive to a reasonable person.

So, I guess they did.

On appeal the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Virginia overturned the verdict because, it said, the church’s First Amendment right to free speech must be protected. Then, to add insult to injury, the Court even imposed $16,510 court costs on the Snyder family.

When Albert Snyder, who was trying to arrange funds to appeal the verdict to the Supreme Court, said he couldn’t pay the costs, Phelps flippantly suggested he "use the death benefits from your son to pay them." Now, that’s pretty cold folks. Bill O’Reilly, host of TV’s "The O’Reilly Factor," said he would pay Mr. Snyder’s obligation because he was not "going to let this injustice stand" and called the Fourth Circuit’s verdict an "outrage."

The Supreme Court granted a writ of certiorari and has agreed to hear the case during its October term with a verdict to come down probably in mid-2011.

Here are some other facts. Fred Phelps, Sr. is a disbarred former attorney. His church, The Westboro Baptist Church, has a small membership estimated at around 30 people, most of whom are family members. The lawyer representing Phelps and his church was one of his daughters, Megan Phelps.

So, now it’s up to you. Do you believe the actions of this crowd of people should be protected by the First Amendment? Would holding them accountable for what they did violate their right of free exercise of religion? Should their actions be considered protected free speech? Should the intentional infliction of emotional distress upon private citizens be tolerated under such circumstances? Or any circumstances for that matter.

Now, in my opinion, these are the type people that give all Christians a bad name. Anyone who would protest at a funeral and inflict emotional pain on someone’s grieving family is beyond contempt. Yet it’s also true that out of bad cases often comes bad law, and this could be one such case. Regardless of which side of the issue you take.


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