WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court is getting involved in the legal fight over the anti-gay protesters who show up at military funerals with inflammatory messages like "Thank God for dead soldiers."
The court agreed Monday to consider whether the protesters' message, no matter how provocative and upsetting, is protected by the First Amendment. Members of a Kansas-based church have picketed military funerals to spread their belief that U.S. deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq are punishment for the nation's tolerance of homosexuality.
The justices will hear an appeal from the father of a Marine killed in Iraq to reinstate a $5 million verdict against the protesters, after they picketed outside his son's funeral in Maryland.
A jury in Baltimore awarded Albert Snyder damages for emotional distress and invasion of privacy, but a federal appeals court threw out the verdict. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the signs contained "imaginative and hyperbolic rhetoric" protected by the First Amendment.
The funeral for Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder in Westminster, Md., was among many that have been picketed by members of the fundamentalist Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas. Westboro pastor Fred Phelps and other members have used the funeral protests to spread their belief that U.S. deaths in the Iraq war are punishment for the nation's tolerance of homosexuality. One of the signs at Snyder's funeral combined the U.S. Marine Corps motto with a slur against gay men.
Other signs carred by members of the Topeka, Kan.-based church said, "America is Doomed," "God Hates the USA/Thank God for 9/11," "Priests Rape Boys" and "Thank God for IEDs," a reference to the roadside bombs that have killed many U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The case will be argued in the fall.
The case is Snyder v. Phelps, 09-751.