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Fred Phelps and a Tale of Two Matts

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Matthew Snyder and Matthew Shepard died eight years apart under very different circumstances, both casualties of war. Snyder, a marine, died in Iraq in 2006. He was 20 and heterosexual. Shepard, a civilian, died at 21; the victim of a gay-bashing outside Laramie, Wyoming, inspired by a culture war waged by far right religious and political leaders. Adding insult to the injury of burying a child, the Snyder and Shepard families had to deal with something never witnessed in history before 1991: picketing at their young sons' funerals by the notorious anti-gay hate preacher, Rev. Fred Phelps. It is a story too many families across America can tell, Rev. Phelps' website boasts nearly 44,000 pickets, many at funerals. In between the two Matts' funerals, Americans' attitudes toward gay rights have changed as people have seen, and most have rejected, the hate preached by Rev. Fred Phelps.

Phelps and his family were largely unnoticed outside Kansas when they began picketing funerals of AIDS victims and other gay people. They emerged on the national scene at Matthew Shepard's funeral in 1998 when they first appeared on CNN. But it wasn't until several years later, when Phelps started picketing funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, that even culture war conservatives, who'd overlooked his antics targeting homosexuals, considered Phelps' tactics harassment. Congress and 47 states passed laws to keep the Phelps' pickets several hundred feet away from funerals.

Where free speech ends and harassment of private citizens begins is a question the U.S. Supreme Court will consider on October 6th, in Snyder v. Phelps, a case brought by Al Snyder, the deceased soldier's father. A Maryland jury awarded Al Snyder $10.9 million for the intentional infliction of emotional distress by the Phelps' Westboro Baptist Church. Ultimately reduced $5 million, the decision was overturned by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals on free speech grounds.

One institution of the culture war, the American Center for Law and Justice founded by Rev. Pat Robertson, filed an amicus brief in Snyder v. Phelps stating, "The Reverend Fred Phelps and his followers present a sorry caricature of Christianity. Their gospel of hate and their deliberately cruel and exploitative tactics merit universal condemnation." Another culture warrior, the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, tried to distance himself from Phelps calling him a "loon," even though their beliefs about homosexuals, if not their tactics, were aligned. No matter how subtle, bigotry still feels like harassment to many gay, lesbian, bi and transgender Americans seeking equality. The Phelps' presence at any funeral, military or civilian, certainly feels like harassment to mourners.

"I had people come up to me at the funeral," Al Snyder says, "saying, 'Oh I didn't know Matt was gay.' It wouldn't have mattered a hill of beans to me if he was, I would have loved him just the same. I have family members who are gay," Snyder says, understandably disturbed by the distraction and chaos caused by the Phelps on the day he said goodbye to his only son. A family in mourning had their one chance to bury a beloved son with dignity, ruined. They were thrust into a media circus, complete with a small army of local law enforcement deployed to keep the peace, by the Phelps' decision to travel to picket Matt's funeral. Instead of having a day to gather with friends and family to celebrate the life of their son, every aspect of the Snyder's mourning was tinged with the Phelps' venomous pickets.

"I've talked to so many military families who lost someone," Al Snyder says, "and two hours after they get the horrible news, they start wondering, 'Are the Phelps' going to show up?' Nobody should have to think about that while grieving."

The Phelps were not picketing for or against the war and Matt Snyder was not gay, so they were not protesting public policy on gays serving their country. Their only purpose was to use the event of a soldier's funeral to get media attention for their particular beliefs. They blast faxed press releases prior to the service with Matt Snyder's picture reading, "Burial of an Ass" and referring to St. John's Catholic Church where the services were held as a "dog kennel."

On the day of Matt Snyder's funeral, standing at the main vehicular entrance to the church, the Phelps family held bright neon signs that read: "God Hates America", "Thank God for Dead Soldiers", "God Hates You", "Priests Rape Boys", "You Are Going to Hell", "Fag Church", and the one they are most known for, "God Hates Fags". As more than 1500 mourners drove into the parking lot, they could not help but see the signs and hear the Phelps family taunting them. Even though the Snyder family had been re-routed to a service entrance to avoid the pickets as much as possible, they could not escape the intrusion of the Phelps' presence, and the questions that logically arose from mourners.

In the opposition to cert brief filed by the Phelps attempting to persuade the Supreme Court not to take the Snyder case, they go out of their way to note that another of their signs, "Matt in Hell", could only refer to Matthew Shepard who died eight years prior. Sean Summers, a veteran and the lead attorney representing Al Snyder, says that one of the problems with the "Matt in Hell" sign is the Phelps protested so many funerals in that period they, "didn't recall," if the sign was at the Snyder funeral. "We didn't make a big deal out of it at trial," Summers explains, "because they would have some long explanation about Matthew Shepard and I didn't want to get side-tracked. From a tactical perspective we had enough evidence to prevail." While the sign carries a grainy black and white image of Shepard surrounded by huge block letters, if it was at the Snyder funeral, it's hard to imagine people driving past would have distinguished the two Matts, both near twenty, blonde, their boyish charm evident in photos.

Jason Marsden knows all about the "Matt in Hell" sign, and as the Executive Director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, he notes that the Phelps still use it frequently. Marsden calls the sign disrespectful and says, "The Phelps' interest in taunting the Shepards, the people of Wyoming, and people around the world hurt by what happened to Matthew Shepard, has been durable." He notes the Phelps have continued to target Judy and Dennis Shepard, calling them names and frequently announcing protests of the Shepard's speaking engagements or the foundation's events. While the Shepards have become public figures since the tragic death of their son, it is important to remember that when it happened, Judy and Dennis Shepard, just like Al Snyder and his ex-wife Julie, were private citizens grieving the loss of a child. "Judy and Dennis have been dignified, not taking the bait," Marsden says of the ongoing harassment by the Phelps. "They see Westboro Baptist Church for what it is. They won't go down the path of hate. It's what motivated Matthew's killers in the first place."

Whether or not mourners at the Snyder funeral saw a "Matt in Hell" sign or would have understood it wasn't referring to Matt Snyder is speculative. But they did see signs that spoke directly to Matt Snyder, his family, and the mourners. "What bothered Al the most," Sean Summers says, "were the signs that read 'God Hates You' and 'You Are Going To Hell'. At trial the Phelps asked, 'How do you know that applies to your child?'" According to the Phelps, "you" refers to everyone outside the Westboro Baptist Church, whose 80 or so members are almost all related, living in an isolated compound of suburban houses surrounding a pool in Topeka, Kansas. Their baptismal font has a diving board.

The Fourth Circuit, in overturning the jury verdict, ruled, "Historically the pronoun 'you' was used only in the plural form; the pronoun 'thou' was used to refer to a singular person." Summers believes the appellate court is overreaching. "Based on the fact the court had to break out a dictionary to define 'you', they're obviously stretching the definition to fit a particular circumstance," he says.

The Fourth Circuit's decision, like the Phelps themselves, focuses primarily on the picket signs at the funeral, but the trial jury also considered the personal attacks targeted specifically at the Snyder family in the press release, and an "Epic" posted on the Phelps' website following the funeral. In the "Epic" the Phelps wrote that Matt Snyder was raised by his parents to, "... defy his Creator, to divorce, and to commit adultery. They taught him how to support the largest pedophile machine in the history of the entire world, the Roman Catholic monstrosity. Every dime they gave the Roman Catholic monster condemned their own souls. They also, in supporting satanic Catholicism taught Matthew to be an idolater."

According to Summers the trial judge said this case was essentially harassment before, during, and after the funeral. But the Fourth Circuit disagreed, paying almost no attention to the premeditation of the press release and the media circus it created. Since the "Epic" was posted online, a "passive communication" only discovered when Al Snyder Googled his son's name to read remembrances from Matt's military buddies, the court said it too was protected speech. "The 'Epic' was completely targeted at the Snyder family," Summers says. "Regardless of your political beliefs, it was an attack on a private individual." Al Snyder was in utter disbelief when he read the Fourth Circuit's opinion. "It was like I have no rights and they have them all."

While the Supreme Court will ultimately decide whose rights will prevail, what is certain is that the Phelps family, in systematically targeting both the Shepard and Snyder families, have turned them into heroes. Quietly, many Americans are mounting their own counter protests against the Phelps. Al Snyder hears from people all over the country supporting him. "A couple from West Virginia sent me a picture of them holding signs saying 'Matthew Snyder is Our Hero' and 'We Support Al Snyder' when the Phelps were picketing the funerals of several miners killed last year," Snyder says. "I'm not looking for fame or fortune. But I don't care who you are, everybody in this country has a right to be buried with dignity."

Jason Marsden agrees. "More people see through the Phelps now. Twelve years ago there was a broader base of people who agreed with the Phelps, that homosexuality was wrong." Marsden believes the Phelps clan has been exposed as the cynical media manipulators they are and at the same time notes the creative ways in which people speak out against the Phelps. Counter protests are almost always several times larger, such as at Wilson High School in Long Beach, California this year where 4500 students demonstrated the power of love, while a half-dozen hate-filled Phelps stood across the street. Increasingly there are also so-called "joke protests" where a few people show up with absurd signs to put the Phelps' signs in a humorous context: "God Hates Signs", or "I thought about Shirley Phelps naked ... Now I'm homosexual."

"The Phelps have indirectly raised tens of thousands of dollars for the Matthew Shepard Foundation," Marsden says. A recent Facebook effort by one young woman in New Jersey netted the Shepard Foundation more than $17,000. "That will directly fund programs in schools about bullying, bigotry and hate," Marsden says, all inspired by people seeking peaceful ways to counter the Phelps' hateful pickets. At Phelps-a-thon.com people pledge money for every minute the Phelps are protesting in a community and then donate that money to Gay and Lesbian Community Centers, Gay Straight Alliances or other worthy causes. At MatthewSnyder.org people are helping to defray the legal costs associated with Al Snyder's case and the mostly pro bono work contributed by his legal team who are all veterans themselves.

When Al Snyder sits in the Supreme Court chamber listening to oral arguments October 6, it will be less than three weeks shy of the first anniversary of President Obama signing the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Act into law. Dennis and Judy Shepard fought for years to see that law passed, just as Al Snyder has channeled his grief to protect the rights of all grieving families, since 2006. These two ordinary American families were thrust into action and a public life they never sought by the Phelps family's seemingly insatiable need for media attention. In the twelve years between Matthew Shepard's funeral, and a Supreme Court case about Matthew Snyder's funeral, Americans' attitudes toward their gay neighbors have changed. It seems the Phelps family, increasingly isolated, are the only ones who haven't.

Scott Blaine Swenson is a writer living in Long Beach, California, and a native of Topeka, Kansas. He was the founding Editor of RH Reality Check, and has worked as an advocate for gay rights and death with dignity issues.