In the conventional view, Phelps is a nuisance, a nobody, a swami not worth swatting. He is appealing a judgment against him of $10.9 million in damages for picketing a funeral. The judgment is preposterous. Perhaps the most bizarre aspect of this cuckoo First Amendment case is the order of a federal judge in Maryland upholding the jury's award. The order cries out for summary reversal.
The immediate story begins 17 years ago in Kansas, where Phelps began picketing in protest against homosexuality. He declared himself pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church (total membership today, plus or minus 80). With two members, identified as Shirley Phelps-Roper and Rebekah Phelps-Davis, he fell into a regimen of daily picketing against sin in sin's infinite guises.
His petition to the Supreme Court explains:
"With time, it is petitioner's belief that the mores and policies of America grew worse, more sinful and more contrary to the Scriptures. Petitioners believe that the calamities that have befallen America are the direct result of her policies enabling, endorsing and engaging in and being proud of sin, including fornication, adultery, abortion, greed, idolatry and homosexuality.
"Core themes of petitioners' religious belief are reflected on signs such as 'God Hates Fags,' 'God Hates Fag Enablers' and 'Fags Doom Nations' ... Increasingly petitioners' message has become less popular, and today it is safe to say that 99.9% of the population — in America and probably in the world — fully reject, and even hate, the message."
In 1996 Phelps gained national recognition of a sort, when his picketing was reported on ABC's "20/20." Since then, according to his petition in the Supreme Court, "over 33,000 pickets have been done, in every state of the union." He and his small family regard themselves as prophets or apostles. Their purpose is to warn a doomed society that Sodom awaits. Tomorrow will bring Gomorrah.
The pending Supreme Court case grew out of the war in Iraq. In 2003 Phelps and his tiny band saw an opportunity in the funerals of fallen soldiers: The troops had died "because of the proud sin of America." Here at home, their funeral services were drawing crowds. Now Phelps' signs read, "God Hates America," "America Is Doomed," "Thank God for Dead Soldiers" and "Semper Fi Fags."
Phelps and his apostles, joined by Shirley Phelps-Roper's four minor children, traveled to Westminster, Md., on the outskirts of Washington, D.C., to picket the funeral of Lance Cpl. Matthew A. Snyder. According to the petition, they picketed "for 30 to 40 minutes over 1,000 feet from the church where the funeral was being held." They departed before the funeral began. A month later, Phelps published on his Web site a statement that touched off the pending litigation: Young Snyder had died "because of the sins of America." The Bible told us so.
In June 2006, the fallen soldier's father sued Phelps and his apostles in U.S. District Court. He alleged "intentional infliction of emotional distress, defamation, invasion of privacy and civil conspiracy." The case went to a jury trial in Maryland three months ago. Judge Richard D. Bennett instructed the jurors to keep in mind that "Where speech is directed at private people and matters of private concern, the Supreme Court
has held that the First Amendment interest in protecting particular types of speech must be balanced against the state's interest in protecting its residents from wrongful injury."
Moreover, "You must balance the defendants' expression of religious beliefs with another citizen's right to privacy and his or her right to be free from intentional, reckless, or extreme and outrageous conduct causing him or her severe emotional distress."
Well, let us bless a right to privacy! According to the record, Lance Cpl. Snyder's funeral was hugely attended and fully covered in the press. Riders from the "Patriot Guard" turned out in formation. Schoolchildren brought their own signs. The church "was able to hold 1,200, and it was packed." After the funeral concluded, "a 15-mile procession to the burial was filled with citizens, police and firefighters, with flags, signs and salutes." Go to Google and read all about it!
Invasion of privacy? How in the name of free speech could distant picketing and a nutcake sermon on a will-o'-the-wisp Web site possibly justify this verdict? No way!
(Letters to Mr. Kilpatrick should be sent by email to email@example.com.)
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