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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)
  1. Mark

    The best religion is a dead religion

    March 2, 2011 at 1:36 pm |
  2. bla

    This nutball is going to sell popsicles in a very hot place...While your down there Phelps and klan, have fun talking to Hitler, Ted Bundy,and the likes" But be careful, these people down there are probably still killing people!!!!

    October 15, 2010 at 10:21 am |
  3. Jim

    This is not about free speech, this is about harassment!!!!! I hope the supreme court makes the right decision.

    October 13, 2010 at 2:01 pm |
  4. Seth Hill

    I'm an atheist, and I'm going to picket – very LOUDLY – in front of churches. I'm going to carry a BIG sign declaring Jesus never existed! I'm going to scream and yell terrible insults at anyone who enters a church! I'll be at YOUR church some time soon.

    October 9, 2010 at 9:47 pm |
    • Nigel Roberts

      Better picket MoveOn.org then. 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 9:35 pm |
  5. Iqbal khan

    Hello please check this one.....

    http://patriotsquestion911.com/

    October 7, 2010 at 7:27 pm |
  6. Nonimus

    So, Mr. Prothero, you said you would testify for the defense, WBC in this case, then you backed out of that commitment and now you are saying that you regret not having done it.

    Is your opinion that fickle? Or, is the subject perhaps over your head?

    October 7, 2010 at 1:59 pm |
    • Dano

      Prothero needs a vacation, I think. That "trollface" picture of his is really indicative of his position at CNN....

      October 7, 2010 at 9:26 pm |
  7. Mr. Stan Walters

    keith

    TO: Frogist

    @keith: I think you are contradicting yourself. If you understand that soldiers died for their right to protest, then aren't you nullifying their deaths by telling them to leave?

    Frogist, I believe the true contradiction is the people who are marching and stating that "GOD HATES AMERICA" and kicking the flag around on the ground and showing total disrespect for the country they live in, are pushing their right to free speech out in front of them as their shield. It is not a contradiction to say they should leave, it is a slap in the face (as a veteran) to have people abuse their rights. I have no use for these people. They are manipulative and finding a way to spread hate. They should leave.

    Wonderfully said Keith!

    October 7, 2010 at 11:23 am |
    • keith

      Thank you Mr. Walters! I am not much on posting, but this is one topic that really bothers me.

      October 7, 2010 at 1:23 pm |
  8. @DavidJohnson

    I am sure the Westboro cult is part of the reason Christianity is failing. They are the poster children for religious intolerance and stupidity. I salute them!

    Oh Please! Don't salute these people regardless of your non rligous beliefs. First, they are not Christians, but using it as a front. Second. to be sooo disrespecrful to a private funeral, let alone the fact it is a fallen soldier, is grossly awful!!

    October 7, 2010 at 11:20 am |
    • Nigel Roberts

      You miss the oint as do others. 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 9:34 pm |
  9. David Johnson

    I have sent e-mails to the Westboro clan several times. I received 2 replies. Mostly they send tons of scripture from the King James. I always directed the e-mails to Fred, but he never replied. It was always his daughter.

    I certainly would not mind them protesting at my funeral. It would be a hoot. Alas, I am not famous, so it probably will not happen.

    I am sure the Westboro cult is part of the reason Christianity is failing. They are the poster children for religious intolerance and stupidity. I salute them!

    October 7, 2010 at 11:08 am |
  10. AMW

    Prothero is foolish to think he made a mistake by not testifying on behalf of WBC.

    Yes, their free speech is legal, and they will probably win the case despite everything that is wrong and ignorant about their opinions and how they express them. It's also legal to be an alcoholic, so does Prothero think it would be a mistake to refuse to offer an alcoholic a drink? Prothero was under no legal or moral compulsion to testify on behalf of WBC, and doing so would be simply to enable them in their legal sickness.

    Of all the things in life Prothero could come to regret, his refusal to testify on WBC's behalf should not be on the list. I'm sure he can come up with better ways to publicize himself and his books.

    October 7, 2010 at 10:36 am |
  11. keith

    TO: Frogist

    @keith: I think you are contradicting yourself. If you understand that soldiers died for their right to protest, then aren't you nullifying their deaths by telling them to leave?

    Frogist, I believe the true contradiction is the people who are marching and stating that "GOD HATES AMERICA" and kicking the flag around on the ground and showing total disrespect for the country they live in, are pushing their right to free speech out in front of them as their shield. It is not a contradiction to say they should leave, it is a slap in the face (as a veteran) to have people abuse their rights. I have no use for these people. They are manipulative and finding a way to spread hate. They should leave.

    October 7, 2010 at 9:19 am |
  12. maggie sue

    Well, I had seen before in certain state that the free speach right is honored leaving ppl to protest against politicians like 3 to 4 blocks away from the place this politician is going to have his PUBLIC activities. I dont see why these haters have to be closer than that in a PRIVATE activity to express their opinions. 4 blocks away from the funeral home is fine with me! They r still having their rights protected. Have their right to speech doesnt mean they have to be heard. This happen for politicians, so private ppl have the right to mourn without haters around.

    October 7, 2010 at 9:10 am |
  13. sgreco

    I have to agree that their freedom to protest must be upheld, just as much as gay people's freedom to marry must be upheld. They might not like how freedom works for all people, however. Still, I see no reason why the parents of the soldier cannot win a CIVIL suit for pain and suffering.

    October 7, 2010 at 8:38 am |
  14. Dan

    You know what word you don't hear anymore in the news, responsibly. As in, it is your right, but please act responsibly.

    October 7, 2010 at 6:27 am |
  15. Josh

    It is my view they should not be allowed to do this at a funeral. A funeral is a private gathering not a public gathering and that is where the difference lies in my view.

    If you went to a NRA Private event and began yelling that guns kill babies, they would have security remove you, if you came back they would get police to arrest you. Because at a private gathering you have the right to decide who can and cannot attend. Just as they would have no right to walk into your private home and protest.

    If they want to attend a public function, and protest they have a right to. Go to the nation's capital and protest, stand on the steps of a public building and let everyone hear them, they have that right. They do not have the right to do that at a private gathering.

    October 7, 2010 at 5:46 am |
  16. Ally

    Stephen Prothero decided it would be a good idea to jump on the bandwagon when the media started to pay attention. This isnt about freedom of speech as much is about a persons right to reasonable privacy to practice their beliefs without being molested by hate mongers in the midst of it. The majority of funerals are paid for & a service is provided. They may be in a Funeral home or Church. A plot is often purchased & then used for private use. There is no assumption of the average person that anyone may attend or approach the burial site. The Phelps stand along the road to spread there message of hate while directing that hate at the private person & private event. If you stood outside a private event & protested most likely you would be arrested no matter what your cause.

    October 7, 2010 at 12:50 am |
  17. Zari

    Him being gay has nothing to do with him dying in war. That so-called church is cruel.

    October 7, 2010 at 12:31 am |
  18. Mike

    Well Mr. Prothero, I must respectfully state that I wholeheartedly disagree with your opinion that this hate cult deserved representation for its "rights".

    October 7, 2010 at 12:29 am |
    • Dano

      I also disagree, but not all that respectfully. Prothero is a dull tool. Hacking uselessly at random religious topics is just mental ma-st-urbation. Kind of like posting responses to same.....

      October 7, 2010 at 9:22 pm |
  19. Eric

    I support freedom of speech and religion but these people are choosing the wrong forum to express their views. Their actions are hateful and divisive and it is entirely inappropriate for them to protest the funerals of brave Americans who gave their very lives to protect freedom. Personally, I view the WBC protestors as no different than the Taliban in terms of their extremely radical views and I feel strongly that the freedoms of speech and religion are not served well by allowing them to disgrace the memories of fallen servicemen and women in such a hateful and dishonorable manner. Let them go to Afghanistan and protest!

    October 7, 2010 at 12:09 am |
  20. Outsider

    I think Snyder's case has the right focus when they claim there was intentional distress from this Phelps clan. If they just run their protests thru the middle of town without pointing to somebody in particular then it will make total sense to stand by their right for speech freedom. But this is not the case when they show up pointing at you individually.
    So Prothero is totally lost when comparing the NYC Islamic center to this case as the center is clearly not appointed to a specific group of people but just to provide a space for religion free practice.

    October 7, 2010 at 12:02 am |
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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.