Supreme Court weighs extent of free speech rights at funerals

(CNN) — The U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments Wednesday in a legal battle that pits the privacy rights of grieving families and the free speech rights of demonstrators.

In 2006, members of the Westboro Baptist Church protested 300 feet from a funeral for Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder in Westminster, Maryland, carrying signs reading “God hates you” and “Thank God for dead soldiers.”

Among the teachings of the Topeka, Kansas-based fundamentalist church founded by pastor Fred Phelps is the belief that the deaths of U.S. soldiers is God’s punishment for “the sin of homosexuality.”

Albert Snyder, Matthew’s father, said his son was not gay and the protesters should not have been at the funeral.

“I was just shocked that any individual could do this to another human being,” Snyder told CNN. “I mean, it was inhuman.”

Snyder’s family sued the church in 2007, alleging invasion of privacy, international infliction of emotional distress and civil conspiracy. A jury awarded the family $2.9 million in compensatory damages plus $8 million in punitive damages, which were later reduced to $5 million.

The church appealed the case in 2008 to the 4th District, which reversed the judgments a year later, siding with the church’s allegations that its First Amendment rights were violated.

In a legal brief filed with the Supreme Court, church members claim it is their right to protest at certain events, including funerals, to promote their religious message: “That God’s promise of love and heaven for those who obey him in this life is counterbalanced by God’s wrath and hell for those who do not obey him.”

To read more, visit: http://www.cnn.com/2010/CRIME/10/06/washington.free.speech.trial/

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