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Phelps' hate church must pay $10.9 million
Phelps' hate church must pay $10.9 million
by Liz Meyer - SGN Staff Writer

A federal jury in Baltimore ordered the Westboro Church to pay nearly $11 million for disrupting the funeral of a Maryland marine. The lawsuit named the Topeka, Kansas-based church, it's leader, Rev. Fred Phelps, and his two daughters, Shirley Phelps-Roper and Rebecca Phelps-Davis, as the defendants.

The church maintains that God is killing and maiming U.S. troops abroad to punish the country's tolerance of homosexuality. The church first gained national notoriety in 1998, when members picketed the funeral of Matthew Shepard, the young Wyoming student who was beaten for being Gay and died days later from his injuries.

In the lawsuit, Lance Cpl. Matthew A. Snyder's family argued that the group's protest of his funeral had been an invasion of privacy and that it inflicted emotional distress on the grieving family members.

The jury agreed, awarding Snyder's family $2.9 million in compensatory damages, $6 million in punitive damages for invasion of privacy, and $2 million for causing emotional distress.

Snyder, of York, Pa., said he hoped other families would consider suing the church for its shock tactics.

"The goal wasn't about the money, it was to set a precedent so other people could do the same thing," he said.

Appearing on NBC's Today Show Thursday, Snyder said, "My son did not fight for hate speech."

"Everybody's under the impression that the First Amendment gives them the right to do anything, say anything any where, any time," said Snyder. "And along with the First Amendment also comes responsibility."

Phelps disagreed. "It was a bunch of silly heads passing judgment on God," he said. "I don't believe anyone in the courtroom knows what the First Amendment is. Religious views are expressly protected by the First Amendment. You can't prosecute a preacher in civil law or in criminal law for what he preaches."

Phelps said the church would appeal, and he predicted that a higher court would overturn the award "in five minutes." Additionally, his daughter said the church would continue to picket military funerals with placards bearing such slogans as the one that's made the group infamous, "God hates fags."

It is unclear if the church will pay the awarded sum. Defense attorney Jonathan Katz told the AP that the church's assets were less than $1 million. Additionally, U.S. District Judge Richard Bennett noted that the size of that award "far exceeds the net worth of the defendants," the Associated Press reported.

The church reportedly has fewer than 100 members, but the organization is monitored by the Anti-Defamation League, and is classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

As a result of the group's pickets, several state Legislatures have passed bills restricting protests at funerals or tightening existing limits, and lawmakers in more than a dozen other states are considering adopting similar measures, the Associated Press reported. Shirley Phelps-Roper said the verdict made her 50th birthday yesterday a happier one. She said the verdict would give the church more publicity and better enable it to spread it's message.

"We're making new signs: 'Thank God for $10.9 million.' Listen to that amount. It's so laughable," she said. "It was all I could do not to laugh. You guys think you can change God?"

Members of the church protested at Snyder's funeral, displaying signs, including one that read, "Thank God for Dead Soldiers."
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