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. Grant

    I recall that the Bush admin was pretty effective at limiting how far distant protestors had to be...in fenced in pens...from the Republican National Convention. Let Phelps protest....across town. I agree with those who point out that other democratic Western countries have limitations on hate speech, and yet they are still democracies, and the slippery slope arguments have not been borne out in real life.

    October 6, 2010 at 10:37 pm |
  2. Rea


    Anybody who knows the details of this case will know why the WBC should be let off the hook

    I disagree. Regardless of what "orders" they followed, they eed to be stopped from disrupting funerals, especially when someone is burying a loved one. In this case, one who died to protect the freedoms of people!

    October 6, 2010 at 10:28 pm |
  3. islandmomof4

    They show a complete lack of empathy & respect. Protesting at funeral is just plain hateful. God is love not hate! I'm honestly, a bit surprised they haven't been physically harmed doing such.

    October 6, 2010 at 10:22 pm |
  4. BrightBetty

    The examples of religious protests you give all fight for the rights of individuals who otherwise did not have such rights and freedoms. What are the Phelps fighting for? Who will it benefit, who *does* it benefit now? No one but THEM. The difference between their actions causing emotional harm and the Islamic center is simple-intent, and in this case they will have no trouble telling you that their intent is to disrupt and emotionally harm the lives of others while it would not be at all easy to prove in an emotional harm case regarding the Islamic center.

    These people make a living off a suing innocent people and get their kicks by protesting the funerals of soldiers and others all while hiding behind Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Religion. With Freedom comes Responsibility, and WBC has no knowledge of the meaning of that word. It's easy to say "They have a right" until it's your loved ones funeral they show up at because you back out of working with them. How quickly would the tune change then?

    October 6, 2010 at 9:49 pm |
  5. Mike

    Anybody who knows the details of this case will know why the WBC should be let off the hook. They are hateful bigots and I strongly disagree with their message, but when they protested "at" this funeral, they followed police orders, and were at least 1/2 mile away from the funeral site, and not even visible to anyone present at the service itself.

    October 6, 2010 at 9:48 pm |
  6. Jill

    These people or ignorant. They protest at funerals of fallen soldiers and demean the REAL reasons they died, which one of is to protect their right to be able to have freedom of speech to protest in the first flippin' place. If these people believe America has turned into such a terrible place they should get the f@#!* out. This is hard. Yes they have a right to freedom of speech, but the families also have a reasonable expectation to be able to bury their loved ones with respect and dignity. Kind of hard to do when someone is shouting they deserved to die or they died because God hates whatever. The only settling thing about all this is that these people will be judged when their time comes. Would not want to be them on that day!

    October 6, 2010 at 9:21 pm |
  7. Marilyn

    This is no Christian church, but a front. These people blast lies about God to begin with. He does not hate,period. Furthermore, they are not just organizing a 'peaceful right toprotest", when in fact they are hurling insults about dead soldiers at a private funeral. That is harrasement and bullying. It should be against the law to do that.
    What happens when someone "snaps" due to thier emotional stress, and hurts one of these Westboro bunch? They put themselves in that place, too bad for them1

    October 6, 2010 at 9:15 pm |
  8. Mark from Middle River

    There has to be a common ground or some meeting half way on this one. You can not restrict a persons free speech but at the same time for a funeral, which unless a person is entombed in a mosuleam has to happen outside. What surprises me is that the military has not weighed in on this for one of their own fallen. Maybe even the vfw could step in. Put a ring of soilders past and present around the families while at the cemetery. I mean at least 50 or 70 yards out.

    It just seems that as disrespectful as this is that it would not seem to difficult to recruit volunteers to counter this group. Is there a website or group organized to counter? If glen beck and obama can draw crowds to hear them speak than it should not be too hard to draw enough folks to counter protest. Heck find out where they work and live and protest.

    October 6, 2010 at 9:12 pm |
  9. G

    I am very surprises the author would be supporting of this group protesting at private funerals. I can hardly think of a more terrible thing than having someone coming to a funeral at a church, which means the people presumably believe in God, and telling people that their friend or family member is in hell now. I am very pro free speech and generally believe people should be allowed to say what they want in all public spaces, but I simply cannot condone this behavior. Also, I would like to point out that the metaphor of the Mosque in New York is not a very good example. It makes the leap that many people have that Muslims equal the terrorist who commited the atrocity of 911, which is false. This is more like if the KKK decided to open a community center two blocks from Martin Luther King's grave.

    October 6, 2010 at 9:00 pm |
  10. simplemgee

    There's a limit to all good things in life. Amongst those things are your rights. As in, do not ruin a family's right to a decent burial, and do not yell fire in a theater. Furthermore, as a person, you are expected to uphold a certain standard of human decency. The actions of this so called church are by all means, some of the most inhumane and indecent things that could be done. Also, a funeral is a private affair, and therefore, not part of the right to protest and the horribly abused right of free speech. And furthermore, these people are promoting hate speech, one of the most vile abuses possible.

    Even if the protesters are on public ground nearby, this should still be a matter left to the family, not fools carrying signs. At the very least, in the name of common sense and respect for the dead, these sick, deranged imbeciles should be kept a far, far place away from such private, emotional matters. Personally, I suggest a 20 mile radius, and away from the public roads.

    October 6, 2010 at 8:50 pm |
  11. tom hunter

    the families of dead soldiers, and relatives and supporters, should forn an organization (use the internet to recruit and organize

    the families of dead soldiers and their supporters could form an organisation to protest both the topeka church(ongoing) and the funerals under protest, to outnumber and surround the fred phelps freaks, drowning them out with chants of "God hates bigots"

    October 6, 2010 at 8:49 pm |
    • Iqbal khan

      Has any one else have seen this...


      October 7, 2010 at 8:30 pm |
  12. d

    while i do agree the wbc should have freedom to stage protests in a public place, i'm also of an opinion a funeral is not a public place. usually a burial plot is purchased by/for the family and the rituals are for family and friends by invitation. said rituals are performed on the site of the purchased land. family land is not public land.

    in my town you have to have a permit for a parade or large gathering. shelter houses at parks require reservations and fees, and you can be shut down for disorderly conduct if your gathering resorts to threatening behavior. for that matter, i know people who have been kicked out of concert halls for being "disruptive". a protest march at a funeral is quite disruptive.

    if the wbc didn't have the affiliation of "church" would their conduct have any sanction?

    October 6, 2010 at 8:18 pm |
  13. cassie

    e, once again you are drowning in PC soup. Your opinion, to put it kindly, is simple minded. Just because we have free speech rights doesn't mean we can run over e very other right others have. This "free speech" actually amounts to an attack on this familiy's practice of religion in giving their son a burall in accord with their beliefs. It also infringes on their privacy to conduct family business by invitation only, so to speak. They are not holding a big public event. You will see (I hope) the Court will find for the family. If they don't, we have witnessed PC run amouk once again.

    October 6, 2010 at 8:09 pm |
  14. brighton in stl

    Eve stated: How is this different from abortion protesters who show graphic pictures outside of women's health clinics? Isn't a medical appointment a private event? Isn't the person a private individual? Why is a protester yelling 'baby killer' considered free speech and not individual harassment? Don't the speech and pictures intentionally create emotional distress?

    It is different in that when one is protesting at a clinic, they are standing outside the walls – not standing over your shoulder while you have any procedure done and shouting how you will burn in hell. Protesting at a funeral is standing right in the middle of the private moment – taking away a family's right to mourn and say goodbye on their own terms.

    Shame on WBC for hindering the mourning of a family. You can bet that when the world shows up to protest daddy's death and funeral, they will be in an uproar over that. they might try to keep it quiet to attempt to have peace – but it won't happen. and I hope the world turns out with signs and bullhorns to show their love.

    October 6, 2010 at 6:37 pm |
  15. jp

    The author is absolutely wrong. The sole intent of thier choice of venue is to cause enough personal pain to the funeral goers that they are no longer ignored. Would we have sat back if a muslim group had protested the 9/11 victims families funerals with signs that said 'thank god for dead 9/11 victims'? Just because they are parading as a Christian group does not mean they should be allowed to push hate speech at private events such as funerals. If they want to protest, they can fill out a county request form and all eleven of them can march down mainstreet just like the KKK.

    October 6, 2010 at 6:34 pm |
  16. Jennifer

    The people protesting with this "church" should all be charged with harrassment. The pastor is running a cult. These people following him are LOST. They are allowing their children to participate in this? What kind of parenting is that? Social services needs to get involved with these delusional people.

    October 6, 2010 at 6:32 pm |
    • BitterEnd


      I believe you have put your finger on the EXTREMELY LARGE LOOPHOLE in our Constltution.

      Anyone can start a cult and instantly enjoy tax-free status while committing every kind of crime imaginable behind the "handy" shield of "religious freedom".
      Yeah. Big loophole there. Our whole country is slipping down into this black pit of insanity churned up and enriched by "religious freedom". Madness rules this world. Good luck on finding a safe place to live. The whole universe is dangerous.

      Just creatures with brains can go insane.

      The crazy thing is...everyone is crazy and hardly anyone wants to really do anything about it – not even psychologists or any other mental health "professionals".

      Sorry Jennifer, I just had to rant about it 'cause it's driving me insane....

      October 7, 2010 at 1:45 am |
  17. missmelis

    this church is sick, these people abuse the right of freedom of speech. how dare anyone be so disrespectful, to do that at a funeral, if it werent for those soldiers we wouldnt be where we are today. i wouldnt even want my name to associated with that group let alone my opnion to help them out in court. im glad this writer didnt. regrets or not. i hope that someday that church group gets it!

    October 6, 2010 at 4:42 pm |
    • peace2all


      Agreed..... And i am very, very curious..... When one of the "Westboro Baptist Church Klan" happens to die at some point in the future, will anyone go and picket at their funeral...? 🙂

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

      October 6, 2010 at 6:23 pm |
  18. Getting To Know the Muslims


    October 6, 2010 at 4:29 pm |
  19. Getting To Know the Muslims


    Put some more muslim propaganda up – I'll post ten against each one of yours.

    October 6, 2010 at 4:24 pm |
    • Iqbal khan

      I don't know what your religeon is but for your info. all the prophets from Adam,Noah, Abraham,Ismaeel,Isac,jacob,David,Josef,Soloman,John,Zakariah,Moses,Jesus and Muhammad peace be upon all of them were MUSLIMS! (Check out the meaning of muslim) so if you are going to be against all of them.
      I can only pray for you, may God Al-mighty guide you to the TRUTH. Ameen

      October 6, 2010 at 8:28 pm |
    • Getting To Know the Muslims

      Take your "prayers for me" and stuff 'em. You are a lying fascist ped0 sc\_/mbag. Among other things.
      But don't feel bad. I have close to the same feelings for the 'christians' you depict in you little movie.

      October 6, 2010 at 9:50 pm |
    • Getting To Know the Muslims

      Take your "prayers for me" and s!uff 'em. You are a lying fascist ped0 sc\_/mbag. Among other things.
      But don't feel bad. I have close to the same feelings for the 'christians' you depict in you little movie.

      October 6, 2010 at 9:51 pm |
  20. Getting To Know the Muslims


    October 6, 2010 at 4:22 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.