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October 6th, 2010
08:18 AM ET

My Take: Why a hateful church should win Supreme Court case

Editor's Note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

A few years ago a daughter of the Protestant minister Fred Phelps called to ask me if I would serve as an expert witness on her father’s behalf in a civil lawsuit.

The controversial case concerned picketing by Phelps’ Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) at the Westminster, Maryland, funeral of Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder, who was killed in Iraq in 2006. Brought by Albert Snyder, the father of the deceased soldier, the case accused Phelps and other WBC members with invasion of privacy and the intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Phelps’ daughter wanted me to testify about the history of anti-government protests in the United States.

She said her father stood in a long line of protesters whose theological views had compelled them to denounce U.S. government policies. She insisted that the signs her father was carrying were protected under the free speech and freedom of religion clauses of the First Amendment.

“What did the signs say?” I asked her. Unapologetically, she rattled off the slogans.  The one I remember was “God Hates Fags.”

This lawsuit, “Snyder v. Phelps,” is to be heard today by the U.S. Supreme Court. The question is whether an appeals court was right to overturn an $11 million jury verdict awarded to Snyder’s father.

The fact that the justices agreed to hear the case means they are at least considering ruling that the speech and actions of the WBC are not constitutionally protected.

Turning the tables on the time-honored conceit that Americans are God’s chosen people, Phelps and his followers insist that “God is America’s enemy” because the United States has abandoned biblical principles for the evils of homosexual lust. In addition to picketing funerals of U.S. military personnel, WBC members step on and burn American flags.

Hate is the operative word on the WBC website godhatesfags.com.

In fact, in the gospel according to the Phelps, God hates not only homosexuals but Islam, Israel, India and Islam. And that's just the I's.

Long before the Gainesville-based pastor Terry Jones threatened to burn Qurans, Phelps and his followers did just that - in a 2008 made-for-the-media event that the media largely ignored.

When Phelps’ daughter came calling, I initially said I would testify on her father’s behalf.  But after talking to some friends who had dealt with the WBC in various capacities, I  backed down.

I now believe I made a mistake.

I have devoted my professional life to studying religion because I value the ability of religious institutions to offer a prophetic “NO” to those who would make idols of their politicians and gods of their governments.

As Phelps’ daughter reminded me, there is a venerable American history of religious protests against the coercive power of the federal government, running from the anti-slavery and female suffrage advocacy of nineteenth-century evangelicals to the civil rights agitation of rabbis and members of the black church.

Phelps got his start as a civil rights lawyer in the 1960s. But somewhere between fighting Jim Crow laws in Kansas and stomping on the memory of Lance Corporal Snyder in Westminster, Maryland, he lost his way.

I do not believe that any God worthy of the name hates homosexuals or Muslims or members of the U.S. military.  So I am no fan of the Rev. Phelps or his extended family, who together comprise the lion’s share of the WBC.

I believe the Anti-Defamation League is right to describe this organization as “virulently homophobic.” The Christian leaders who have denounced Phelps are right to describe its views as unscriptural. And the Southern Poverty Law Center is right to classify the WBC as a hate group. In fact, perhaps more than any other group in America, the WBC is defined by what it hates.

Nonetheless, I am convinced that Phelps and his followers have as much right to say in public whom they believes God hates as their fellow citizens have to say whom they believe God loves.

In recent years anti-WBC laws limiting protests at funerals have been passed in at least half a dozen states and are being considered in a dozen more.

Like Dade County ordinances prohibiting animal sacrifice by Santeria practitioners, which the U.S. Supreme Court rightly overturned in 1993 Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah, each of these laws specifically targets a particular form of religious expression, that of the WBC. So these laws are also  unconstitutional.

Also constitutionally suspect is the Respect for America’s Fallen Heroes Act, approved by a 408-3 vote in the House and signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2006.

All this is to say that the federal jury that found for Snyder’s father and the federal judge who ordered Phelps and his daughters to pay millions in 2006 for protesting the funeral of Lance Corporal Snyder made a mistake. So did Bill O’Reilly, who has reportedly footed some of the legal bills for the Snyder family.

If Phelps and his co-defendants are liable for the intentional infliction of emotional distress in this case, what is to prevent another judge and jury from ordering monetary damages in a case against the owners of the proposed Islamic community center near ground zero for inflicting emotional distress on the families of 9/11 victims? Or, for that matter, on liberals who watch “The O’Reilly Factor”?

When the Supreme Court hears this case I hope it will do the right thing and let Phelps and his family trudge off to their next protest unmolested by the long arm of government. And when the next notorious religious group comes calling I hope I will do the right thing too

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: Church • Courts • Homosexuality • Islam • Opinion • Religious liberty • Westboro Bapitst Church

soundoff (152 Responses)
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    November 27, 2013 at 11:26 pm |
  2. Rayan

    Fred Phelps must be a shallow man with some very deep inetcurisies. That video was uplifting though. Anti-gay is just one concept I cannot understand. At least there is an argument on each side for other controversial issues. Anti-gay activists don't even have anything mildly convincing to work with. When will we get past this stuff?

    June 29, 2012 at 3:13 am |
  3. Justinstl

    They cant stop these idiots from protesting because protesting is the right of everyone......They could though....make a law that says you can ONLY protest in the county in which YOU RESIDE! THIS WOULD MAKE IT ILLEGAL FOR THEM TO TRAVEL OUT OF THEIR OWN AREA TO PROTEST. It would also keep mobs from forming at any protest anywhere!

    February 8, 2012 at 8:45 am |
  4. James Brooks

    I grew up Southern Baptist leaving in Florida, but the real story is about a sick pastor in Florida named Terry Jones.

    Christian or Murderer? Free Speech or "YELLING FIRE IN A CROWDED THEATER".

    THINK ABOUT IT? A single "pastor", his word, not mine, of a 60 member church, in a backwater town in Florida, can cause a global disaster.

    Will the American people allow this to continue? Look at history, and we will find Christianity has the been this most murderous of Religions. Intolerance is on both sides of the Muslim/ Christian divide.

    A call for the "Muslim community" to condemn and "control" such atrocities of a few, has been called for. Where is the "Christian community" in condemning and "controlling" such atrocities of a few.

    April 3, 2011 at 11:45 am |
  5. Geri

    Everyone should be allowed to peaceful protest and the right there of.

    However, the Westboro church is not Christian, and they are a bunch of money hungry lawyers, looking to see who they can make thier next buck off of. Why do you think thier so called "Christian" protest signs, are so blatant and inflammatory? It is because they WANT to draw as much attention
    as they can to themselves.

    They know by thier nasty signs, God hates f_a-g-s, God loves dead soldiers, etc...that they are gonna strike anger chords within people. They are hoping so, if somebody attacks them, they can try to sue, and make the person pay for their court costs, to boot, This is why they show up at funerals and sthings. Their real agenda is money!

    I am hoping that our laws will be adjusted, to protect the rights of others, and that Westboro will be held accountable for thier harrassement. Any monetary reward for thier bad intentions, should be fully denied. That poor man and his family, were groieving the death of thier son. A son that died trying to protect this country and our freedoms. The very freedoms Westboro would not have, had many brave soldiers in the past, not done the same, as well as this soldier.

    Something needs to be done to stop this. We as people need to press for some admendments or adjustments to our laws.
    Ruling they had the right to protest was one thing,. Paying them out of the pocket of the man they harrassed, should have been fully denied. These people make me sick.

    One of these days, and I do hope it never happens, but Westboro is gonna get hurt, mayby even killed. They are gonna cross the wrong person, perhaps one in like a similar sensitive situation as this l;ast one. Somebodys gonna loose it and go off one day.

    Westboro wasn't just out there during normal "protest". They were inflaming that man and his sons funeral service. The signs, God loves dead soldiers, etc. proves it.
    The court should have said you have the right to protest.
    However, you do not have the right to defame or use derogatory teminology aimed specifically at another human being.

    I wish they would have been fined, and did some jail time, and had to pay the poor man that had to put up wiith thier viperous mouths. some compensation. He most likely would have used that mobey to help get a campaighn going to stop this or something.

    Westboro....God is not mocked. One day you will pay for your worship of money. Your a bunch of phoneys.

    March 4, 2011 at 9:53 am |
  6. zooble

    “The right to swing my fist ends where the other man's nose begins.” Oliver Wendell Holmes

    I don't really think anyone is arguing if they have the right to spew the crap they are saying. No one wants to take away their right to protest. But by the way they choose their targets is harassment. SIMPLE. They are choosing a specific group of PRIVATE citizens to sling verbal assaults at. I cannot even see that this is a First Amendment issue. This is a harassment issue, its an assault issue. And I see the solution as simple.....declare a perimeter around and private citizen's funerals in which protests cannot be held. HOW is that in ANY WAY taking away their right to free speech? IT ISN"T. THEY CAN STILL PROTEST AND SAY WHATEVER THEY WANT. THEY JUST DON'T HAVE THEIR CAPTIVE AUDIENCE! And It is only protecting mourners from HARASSMENT. I do not understand the people who say "oh but you can't take away their first amendment right, derhur." NO one wants to!!!!!!!!!!!

    March 4, 2011 at 9:06 am |
  7. Nigel Roberts

    Westboro Baptist Church is *not* a church. Its status is in accordance with IRS regs 501(c)4, not 501(c)3. Genuine churches are in accordance with 501(c)3 and can accept tax-deductible contributions.

    Section 501(c)4 is for not-for-profit political advocacy groups and contributions to them are not deductible. WBC is no more a church than MoveOn.org or the NRA, which are also 501(c)4 organizations.

    March 2, 2011 at 9:31 pm |
  8. Nigel Roberts

    What people are missing here is that the Westboro Baptist Church is *not* a church. Its status is in accordance with IRS regs 501(c)4, not 501(c)3. Genuine churches are in accordance with 501(c)3 and can accept tax-deductible contributions.

    Section 501(c)4 is for not-for-profit political advocacy groups and contributions to them are not deductible. WBC is no more a church than MoveOn.org or the NRA, which are also 501(c)4 organizations.

    March 2, 2011 at 9:26 pm |
  9. JonathanL

    So can satan cultist graffiti artists spray paint curses on the graves of the Phelps' graves, or are their graves now special because 14 out of 16 Phelps family members are attorneys who know how to argue any point, right or wrong, to win in a court of law? They give the term 'criminal lawyer' new meaning.

    March 2, 2011 at 3:16 pm |
    • Matias

      Dear Un-educated, inbred, saooipcths (if you do not know what those adjectives mean, or the word adjective for that matter please refer to a dictionary not that any of you know what that is either)You are the reason that people no longer wish to participate in organized religion. You spit in the face of what religion actually represents. Please stay in whatever backwards mobile home park you crawled out of.

      June 28, 2012 at 10:51 pm |
  10. Lilimarie

    I agre. A funeral is a PRIVATE event o mourning at which these protests should not be protected or permitted.

    March 2, 2011 at 2:46 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.