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Supreme Court will hear Fred Phelps case
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Supreme Court will hear Fred Phelps case

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

The U.S. Supreme Court announced March 9 that it would hear the appeal of a Maryland man who sued notorious homophobe Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church.

Albert Snyder, father of Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, filed suit after Phelps and his followers picketed his son's funeral in 2006. In October 2007, a jury awarded Snyder $11 million in damages, but the judgment was reversed on appeal.

Both sides agree on the facts of the case.

Matthew Snyder was killed in action in Iraq.

At his funeral, Phelps and his followers displayed signs saying "God Hates the USA/Thank God for 9/11," "Semper Fi Fags," "Thank God for Dead Soldiers" and "Priests Rape Boys."

All the signs were made in the Kansas church's on-site sign shop.

Phelps says that he informed local police about his plans to picket and obeyed all their commands about keeping his distance from the funeral.

Snyder v. Phelps turns on conflicting First Amendment claims.

Phelps asserts his belief that combat deaths of U.S. soldiers are God's punishment for the country's tolerance of homosexuality and that his signs are protected speech on issues of national importance.

Snyder claims he has a right to conduct a private religious funeral without outside interference, and says Phelps' actions caused him and his family emotional distress.

Albert Snyder told the original jury hearing the case that he had "one chance to bury my son, and they took the dignity away from it."

That jury found in Snyder's favor and awarded him punitive damages. Subsequently, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit reversed the decision.

A three-judge panel of the 4th Circuit said a reasonable person would not have understood the signs as referring directly to Snyder and his son.

The signs were not meant to be taken literally, but were "imaginative and hyperbolic rhetoric intended to spark debate about issues with which the defendants [Phelps and his church] are concerned," the court said.

The court also held that, while Phelps' signs were offensive, they were protected speech on "matters of public concern."

"Notwithstanding the distasteful and repugnant nature of the words being challenged in these proceedings, we are constrained to conclude that the defendants' signs & are constitutionally protected," the court said.

Snyder's petition to the Supreme Court said the appeals court decision "afforded more First Amendment protection to speech that is outrageous."

It urged the justices to hear the case to determine what recourse private individuals - as opposed to public figures - have against other private individuals who disrupt private religious services.

Because this case was widely publicized, 40 states and the federal government have enacted laws restricting funeral demonstrations. Those laws are not at issue in the litigation.

The Supreme Court will hear Snyder v. Phelps during its new term beginning in October 2010. No hearing date has been set.

The Court will normally hear only cases in which it believes a national legal standard should be set.

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