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)
  1. pw

    This so-called pastor is a big phony. I think the irs should stripped his church of his tax-exempt status

    October 6, 2010 at 4:21 pm |
    • Nigel Roberts

      WBC does not have full tax-exempt status. 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 9:33 pm |
  2. Getting To Know the Muslims

    guardian.co.uk/society/2010/jul/25/female-circ$umcision-children-british-law (remove $)

    guardian.co.uk/society/2010/jul/25/female-circu$mcision-health-child-abuse (remove $)

    October 6, 2010 at 4:18 pm |
  3. Iqbal khan

    Who are we to judge...

    October 6, 2010 at 3:52 pm |
    • Getting To Know the Muslims


      October 6, 2010 at 4:07 pm |
  4. telanca

    As much as we may hate the words expressed, immoral and illegal are two different things.

    October 6, 2010 at 3:30 pm |
  5. peace2all


    ......including my right to express to them, just how hateful, ignorant and wrong their speech is. Just like you and I do here against the people who are spewing hatred against gays, etc....


    October 6, 2010 at 3:08 pm |
    • Frogist

      @peace2all: Absolutely! They can take away my keyboard when they pry it from my cold dead hands. 😉

      October 6, 2010 at 3:21 pm |
    • peace2all


      I am considering 'cryonics'.... then I can still come back and utilize my right to free speech. I don't know why I said that.. 🙂

      Something about prying your keyboard from your 'cold dead hands.'

      BTW... Have you seen or heard from Kate, or Critter...? Haven't heard from them lately. Also, our lord and monster sir David Johnson, seems to be strangely absent today... Hmmmm.. As these topics he would definitely be 'all over' the 'fundies' as he so compassionately calls them.. 🙂


      October 6, 2010 at 3:29 pm |
    • Tax the religious!


      Tax 'em all! Tax 'em to death! Death and Taxes! It's a sure thing!

      (this protest is brought to you by Citizen For Equality Under The Law – CFEUTL)

      October 7, 2010 at 1:34 am |
  6. Frogist

    I'm not sure about the context exactly of the case. I know of the particulars. But are we talking about the protests occuring on public grounds? If so then I would think it's protected speech. Is it annoying and disruptive? Probably. But does that necessarily prevent this family's right to practice their religion? I don't think so. The funeral is not being halted in any way by Phelps arrogant, ignorant masses. Besides, if protest is part of their expression of their brand of religion, ruling in favor of Snyder would be saying Phelp's religion is more valid than Phelps. Anyway the case as I've heard it is not about the freedom of religion vs the freedom of speech. It's the WBC's right to free speech and practice their religion as they choose vs the Snyders' claims of defamation of their son. And I suppose when put that way, it does seem like the const!tution is on the side of the Phelps. I'm glad this decision doesn't fall to me. Hopefully greater minds can figure it out.

    October 6, 2010 at 2:48 pm |
    • peace2all


      Agreed.... I do hope that somehow our first amendment rights are upheld.


      October 6, 2010 at 3:06 pm |
  7. Mat

    I feel its sad when the need to uphold the law takes precedence over common sense. This is wrong. For all we know this may just be a stepping stone for WBC- the true intent to attack the First Amendment itself by playing on it in a way they know it was not created for but nonetheless in our desire to uphold the letter of the law some feel the need to side with WBC. That is actually a fairly genius goal for an anti government agency. If they win, not only do i feel it is deeply wrong to allow this kind of behavior, but there will be no constraints on what people can do to one another non-violently. There has recently been an uprising in bullying awareness. This is the same thing. Or are we protecting bullys too. I guess it would be neat because after I swear at a cop, or a priest, yell racial slurs at my neighbors, or in front of little children. Or if I paint a giant swastika on my house and run a projector on the side of it detailing the most gruesome death scenes from the holocaust- that is ok because I will be protected by the First Amendment. Thank god for free speech.... where does it end?

    October 6, 2010 at 2:14 pm |
    • peace2all


      Agreed..... We need freedom of speech, which is one of the things that makes our country great.

      And.... I am very, very curious..... When one of the "Westboro Baptist Church Klan" dies, will anyone go and picket at 'their'

      funeral..,? 🙂

      Hmmm.... Seems like a potentially good idea to me...!

      October 6, 2010 at 2:21 pm |
    • Frogist

      @Mat: "I feel its sad when the need to uphold the law takes precedence over common sense. This is wrong. " – No it is not. Upholding the laws and more importantly consit!tutionally granted rights and freedoms is not anti-government nor is it anti-common sense. What you are advocating is that everyone just call on the common sense (which as we know is not common) as a replacement of time-honoured and tested laws. And that is a call to vigilantism and chaos.
      Doing the right thing doesn't always feel good. But that does not make it any less right or your feelings a reason to do wrong.

      October 6, 2010 at 3:19 pm |
  8. peace2all

    I am very curious..... When one of the 'Westboro Baptist Church Klan' dies, will anyone go and picket them..? Hmmm 🙂

    Sounds like a potentially good idea to me...!

    October 6, 2010 at 2:04 pm |
    • A Solid Well-Placed Punch in the Mouth

      Peace – A fine idea. Unfortunately, people like these seem to live on forever. The wait could be agonizing, no?

      October 6, 2010 at 2:07 pm |
    • peace2all

      @ A Solid Well-Placed Punch in the Mouth

      Thank you...for your complement..! The ignorant and bigoted hate that they spew at 'anyone' that they don't like, let alone our

      fallen soldiers at their funerals, where families are trying to grieve.... THAT is certainly agonizing to the families and friends that have to put up with their .... freedom of speech.

      October 6, 2010 at 2:14 pm |
  9. shirley

    Im fed up wth peopl who lean on their 'freedoms & rights' @ the xpense of othrs 'freedom & rights'. Any1 who supports this guy is subject to being on his 'freedom train' to hell wth him! He's a 'false prophet' & a 'blasphemer' of God bcuz he has 'taken away & added to' the words of the Bible as well as calling God a 'hater' of the nations he created. God only hates 7 things: Prov 6: 16-19 proud Look, lying tongue, hands shedding innocent blood (read deeper to find this excludes soldiers @war), heart that devises wicked thoughts, feet running swift to mischief, false witness that speak lies, & (the one that is abomination to him) he that soweth discord among brethen! Mr Phelps has committed most these offenses! God have mercy on those that follow or uphold him. All that being said.. his rights should halt where another's begins. Iwould hope the suit includes charges of defimation of character, slander & disturbing the peace.

    October 6, 2010 at 1:52 pm |
  10. A Solid Well-Placed Punch in the Mouth

    Should do it.

    October 6, 2010 at 1:44 pm |
    • I Agree

      With You.

      October 9, 2010 at 10:00 am |
  11. Kristen

    I think the author is missing the larger point. The Supreme Court has upheld the "Fire in a crowded theater" exception to the Freedom of Speech Bill. By saying that Dead Soldiers are good, Phelps is calling for violence against American military. This is not freedom of speech, this is inciting violence. The fact that no one has been stupid enough to follow his suggestions, yet, is besides the point. His goal is the death of American military. NOT a protected freedom. In fact, I am almost sure that causing or requesting the death of American soldiers is treason. Hate speech is just barely protected but speech inciting violence is most definitely NOT protected.

    October 6, 2010 at 1:41 pm |
  12. Pat

    I have fought for the freedom of speech. It is not an issue of the person being in the military or not. It is a point that the WBC showed up at a private funeral. Granted it is on public property. I think the rights of the people at the funeral needs to be addressed. Why should their right not to hear that hate be less then the WBC rights. What would the editor of this article think if the WBC showed up at one of his love one funeral and did this to him. Does anyone really think it is right to have some protesting at a funeral.

    October 6, 2010 at 1:12 pm |
  13. barry r

    This is the worst group of people in the U.S. Eventually they are going to mess with the wrong family and I hope the police turn their backs when they get what they have coming.

    October 6, 2010 at 1:11 pm |
  14. Sue

    I used to believe that religion was about kindness and love and doing to others as you would have others do unto you and just plain being good. My God. How could I have been so naive?

    October 6, 2010 at 1:10 pm |
  15. frtop45

    While the WBC certainly has a right to peaceable assembly and protest, the U.S. Supreme Court has (in multiple judgments) stated that protests CAN be regulated as to time, location and manner of protest. And I hope that's what will come of this case. That the WBC can hold their protests, but that states can dictate how far from a funeral procession the protest is allowed to be.

    October 6, 2010 at 1:08 pm |
  16. shirley

    Thats alright if people want to protest but not if it is at someones funeral. put yourselves in the familys shoes.and things are absolutely not ok if they are slanderinpeople, disturbing the peace and are deformating someones character. these are simple laws people.

    October 6, 2010 at 1:05 pm |
  17. Bernadette

    The Westboro Baptist Church and it's members are truly tasteless. I detest their message of hate and the means through which they spread it. Having said that, I wish the Snyder family would take into consideration that their son died to protect the rights of all Americans, even the morons who are the WBC.

    October 6, 2010 at 12:57 pm |
  18. john g

    there is a thing called the saditon act ?I will be glad to sit at the foot of god and suggest where to sent Phelps and his church!

    October 6, 2010 at 12:54 pm |
  19. merila

    The members of Westboro Baptist Church are DISGUSTING! They are NOT people of G_d. I just can't stand it anymore!! People should be Anti-Hate. This is a HATE CRIME!! This is HARRASSMENT!! And these people ARE DANGEROUS! They have soooo much hate in them. This is not a Freedom of Speech case. This is a Hate Crime. How dare they or anyone cast a stone on anyone. Those people aren't perfect or saints. As a matter of fact they are trash. (for lack of better words). And to whom reads this: Remember, we are all born without a choice, but make a choice to be a good person.

    October 6, 2010 at 12:37 pm |
  20. v

    this is really sad... i understand they want thier freedom of speech and what so but this isnt a public place this is very insensitive of them do to such a thing they are only seeing this as a dead solider they totally disregarded that this is someones son a person. being in the milatary is a job it doesnt define themselves. why dont they go picket a pedophile something with meaning not a private time for a family to grieve

    October 6, 2010 at 12:37 pm |
    • WhoMe

      The Phelps only want the attention which is being given to them. They only mock those who care for the feelings of others.

      October 6, 2010 at 4:21 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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.