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March 3rd, 2011
11:05 AM ET

Opinion: Funeral protest ruling painful but right

Editor's note: Jeffrey Toobin is a senior legal analyst for CNN and a staff writer at The New Yorker magazine, where he covers legal affairs.

(CNN) - The Supreme Court ruled that a Kansas church whose members travel the country to protest at military funerals, holding signs that say "Thank God for dead soldiers" and "God blew up the troops," has a right to continue such demonstrations.

The case was brought by Albert Snyder, whose 20-year-old son, Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, was killed in Iraq in 2006. The family-dominated Westboro Baptist Church, run by Fred Phelps, protested at Matthew Snyder's funeral to spread their opinion that American deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq are God's punishment for U.S. immorality and tolerance of homosexuality and abortion.

CNN.com talked to CNN senior legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin about Snyder v. Phelps, which pitted the right of families to grieve in privacy against the First Amendment right to free expression.

Read Jeffrey Toobin's full op-ed about the Supreme Court's decision on Westboro Baptist Church
- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Christianity • Courts • Homosexuality • Opinion • Westboro Bapitst Church

soundoff (75 Responses)
  1. MICHAEL MULLINAX

    WELL I WAS A SOLDIER IN IRAQ AND ALL I CAN SAY IS I HAVE FREEDOM OF SPEECH TO SO ITS MY FREEDOM TO SAY IF I CATCH 1 OF YOU WESTBORO CHURCH PEOPLE AT A FUNERAL YOU BETTER RUN LIKE HELL... I WILL WHIP MR PHELPS ASS OR ANY OF THOSE SO CALLED WESTBORO CHRISTIANS I HOPE YOU ALL GO STRAIGHT TO HELL. YOU ARE NOT CHRISTIANS BY NO MEANS... YOU DONT DESERVE TO BREATH THE SAME AIR AS ME OR OTHER REAL CHRISTIANS... THIS CHURCH IS NOTHING BUT A CULT U CAN TAKE YOUR SIGNS AND GO TO HELL

    March 24, 2011 at 7:22 pm |
  2. AuntInAZ

    The only good thing we can say about the Westboro Baptist Church is that when they die they'll find out their BS isn't welcomed by God. Their butts will get kicked back out through the Pearly GAtes and they will find themselves in a far less pleasant place...

    March 19, 2011 at 11:37 pm |
  3. aFollower

    As an American Christian, I have to sadly agree with this ruling. I feel in this case it may have been better to pursue individuals, and their comments, instead of the group they represented. However, from a Biblical perspective showing remorse would have been far better than pursue this false victory.

    Despite popular belief God does actually have hates and all six are told in Proverbs 6:16-19. No one who has witnessed the words of the Bible can lie of these hates. The Lord hates those who do like those who stirs up conflict in the community (Proverbs 6:19). The Bible warns of false prophets that lie in Lords name in (Jeremiah 14:14). Those who are following the Lord are easily found as they mourn with those who mourn (Roman 12:15)

    People who are hated by the Lord do not need our hatred and instead they need our prayers:

    “Heavenly Father, we pray for those who have been led into temptation and are now delivering evil. We pray they may once again find your love and cease their lies of false hates. We pray they can once again see your words, to love thy enemy and thy neighbor, as these are the words given to us to bring people to you. We ask they rejoin in fellowship to rejoice with those who rejoice and to mourn with those who mourn. We ask they use the gift they have been given not for notoriety and greed, but as fisher of men as you had intended. It is with these words we pray – Amen”

    March 12, 2011 at 6:26 pm |
  4. Killing the faith in today's society

    This is ridiculous. One of the greatest gifts of this country is the Bill of Rights, and within those Bill of Rights is the freedom of speech and protest. The very thing those soldiers are fighting to defend. Without those soldiers that church would not have the ability to even do those atrocious things at funerals. It is also true that many wars are fought because of greed within the government, but along with that those soldiers defend our freedom. It is a disgrace for any church to use God's name to spread THEIR hatred. Is that not what the terrorist do to rationalize their actions? Do they not use a superior being's name to spread terror through out the world? People like that are killing the spirit and faith in today's society.

    March 9, 2011 at 12:38 am |
  5. spented

    So with this ruling, may I go with pickets outside the WBC and express my feelings that there is no god. Will the 8 reprobates of the court uphold my right to do so as free speech? I doubt that since 5 of them are Roman Catholic.

    March 6, 2011 at 2:05 pm |
    • Maybe

      spented,

      Of course you have the right to picket them; but be very careful with this wily bunch - they will sue you for any misstep that you might make.

      March 6, 2011 at 2:15 pm |
    • spented

      Yes – of course we have retained a well known atheist attorney to make sure we dot every "I" and cross every "T". Let the drama begin.

      March 6, 2011 at 4:34 pm |
  6. Al Bluengreenenbrownenburger

    If Fred Phelps and his Westboro Moron-a-thon were protesting at gay pride parades and the like, almost all of you religious folk would support him. Most of you good Christians agree with what he says – you almost certainly have voted to limit gay rights at some point in your live. You just don't like where he protests.

    March 6, 2011 at 11:46 am |
  7. JWH

    What happened to common sense? Sensibilities? They should be attacked for their disrespect and beaten.
    We have lost our soul. Yes, God soes punish sin, but they need to give the good news first...

    March 5, 2011 at 9:50 pm |
  8. Kim

    Freedom of speech is something to defend, however how a court could rule that uninvited people could attend a private gathering on PRIVATE property is ludicrous! The funeral land is owned by someone and the plots are paid for by the people being buried, this in my mind is trespassing. If the church wants to protest, they should do it in an orderly manor in a public place, what has happened to the rights of the good people... where is this all going to go, shame on the court! AND, if the court shows prejudice then there is another bigger problem.

    March 5, 2011 at 2:09 pm |
  9. michael

    there should actually be a law prohibiting any type of loud or unruly disturbance during a fallen soldiers funeral.

    March 4, 2011 at 9:29 pm |
    • Don

      Then there should also be a law against farting in a crowded elevator. In other words: breaches of decorum should not be illegal.

      March 6, 2011 at 4:38 pm |
  10. michael

    for a church to show such disgrace and disrespect during a family's funeral (especially a fallen soldier) should actually had been criminal. There is no question whatsoever that this so called "church" is fake and phony and they have pushed a lot of honest and good people's buttons. Just the thought of someone disrespecting one of my family or friend's funerals is automatic violence in our area. Those awful people are lucky that they haven't already been hurt, maimed, or even killed for what they have done to that poor family. I also am from Pennsylvania, and I tell you right now, we do have the right to bear arms.

    March 4, 2011 at 8:55 pm |
  11. T-party

    all I can say is I hope the religious community is very very very proud of themselves. If God exists I want to personally apologize to him for all Christians,muslims and all other judgemental folks giving him a bad name.

    March 4, 2011 at 8:32 pm |
  12. John

    This entire issue is so wrong on so many levels it defies description much less understanding. We have totally lost sight of what is important, what is real, and the ability to face and understand the truth about ourselves and this monstrosity of a "culture" we have so burdened the world with.
    Total Cognitive Dissonance.

    March 4, 2011 at 5:54 pm |
  13. TRY THIS FOR FREE SPEECH

    OK...I'm going to get some redneck buddies with confederate flags and we're going to make some big picket signs that say "god hates ni%%erz" and "hang'm til their in hell." I wonder if, as you pro-free speechers so claim, you would back up our freedoms as well? How about black people? How long before we would be SHOT? (1/2 hour? 15 minuites? FIVE minutes?)

    March 4, 2011 at 11:42 am |
    • T-party

      great point

      March 4, 2011 at 8:30 pm |
  14. renjikuchiki1

    while it is distasteful, it is part of free speech.... so we have no authority to take that away from them, as wrong as we may think it is. I know I'd rather keep my civil rights than start to get rid of everything everyone else finds offensive...

    March 4, 2011 at 7:58 am |
    • Nonimus

      Excellent!

      March 4, 2011 at 9:48 am |
  15. not gonna leave a name

    you know, when somebody at this church dies, we should all attend the funeral and put a flower on the grave in soldiers uniforms and with rainbow flags, to show that we don't have to hate.

    March 4, 2011 at 2:44 am |
  16. Ituri

    Its NOT right. A funeral is NOT a public forum, it is NOT an avenue to display political issues, it is NOT a public forum! Its NOT. Its private and painful, and often the most horrible and distressing time in peoples lives.

    Protesting at a funeral is not free speech, it is ASSAULT.

    The Supreme Court members who found otherwise should have their own family members funerals "protested" with perverted and terrible signs and screaming until they come to their senses.

    Protests belong in the streets, in public forums. Funerals are NOT public forums. Nobody can just walk into a funeral, and nobody should be allowed to trespass upon the livings ability to grieve rightfully.

    March 4, 2011 at 1:01 am |
    • Natalie

      Actually, most cemeteries are, in point of fact, public. Anyone can walk into a cemetery and attend a funeral.

      The family may ask that you leave, or at least leave the area around the grave of their loved one where they are gathered, but you have every right to be in the cemetery.

      Complicating that, the protests take place OUTSIDE the cemetery, on a public street generally. Furthering the public forum idea.

      Now, I have no love for WBC. But I do love my freedom, and will defend it, even if that means I defend theirs too. Distasteful as it is, this was the right decision. We can't legislate away their hatred. We have to find other ways to manage it, protect the grieving and our freedoms at the same time.

      March 4, 2011 at 10:42 am |
  17. Michelle

    I think the picketing this group does should be prosecuted as a hate crime. It's way beyond time to rewrite whatever IRS definition of "church" allows these hate-spewing nutjobs to be able to avoid paying taxes while poisoning our country with their venom. My condolences to Mr. Snyder for the loss of his son and for the continued pain he has had to suffer while fighting these people.

    March 4, 2011 at 12:50 am |
    • Claudie Thompson

      You are so right. There is nothing in what they are doing that gives them the right to be called a "church". I've been a Baptist for almost 60 years and nothing they do is Baptist. The clothes some of them wear are a disgrace, the hatred they use is a disgrace. I and many other Christians in my area are part of "Welcome Home Soldiers". We go to the airports with our flag lines, we surround the families of those who have lost their loved ones in war with out flag line, we send packages of cookies and other items to our fighting men and women and to those in hospitals. We pray of our service personel. We stand silently with our flags to honor the brave men and women who serve this country, and those who given their all. I pray none of those so-called Baptist even come to the funeral of one our people are at. We do not need their kind of hate.
      God bless the service men and women; those who are serving now and those who served in the past.

      March 4, 2011 at 10:31 am |
  18. SCROTUS--NOT SCOTUS

    BEE ESSS!!!! This ruling is BOTH PAINFUL and DEAD WRONG! Just like it's wrong to call black people the "N" word or ANY OTHER HATE CRIME. This ruling is JUST AS WRONG AS COMDOMS FOR FIRST GRADERS and the garbage the courts say is ok to teach our young children! This ruling is JUST AS WRONG AS BAILING OUT CORPORATE FAT CATS, WALL STREET, WORLD BANKS–WITH OUR MONEY and then to say to all of us suffering so this year–SORRY PEOPLE! TIME TO CUT SERVICES TO THE ELDERLY, HANDICAPPED, DISABLED, K-12 SCHOOL CHILDREN!

    THIS COUNTRY IS GETTING MORE FK'D UP EVERY DAY AND PEOPLE ARE ABOUT TO BLOW UP!!!!!!!!!

    GAS PRICES.....UP BECAUSE ONLY OF SPECULATORS ON WALL STREET! GOUGING EVERYONE!!!!!!!!!

    NO! THIS RULING WAS DEAD WRONG AND THE PEOPLE IN THIS "CHURCH" ARE GOING TO PAY AND PAY DEARLY!

    I QUOTE THE MAN WHO LOST THE RULING AND IS NOW FORCED INTO PAYING THESE CLOWNS $166,000, "THERE WILL BE BULLETS!"

    These people are soon to meet their God I have a feeling and this country better MAKE CHANGES FAST....Libya and Egypt will pale in comparison! I see Thomas Jefferson's words clearly, "The tree of Liberty must be refreshed with the blood of Patriots AND Tyrants, for they are its natural manure."

    March 4, 2011 at 12:23 am |
    • Tony

      RAVE ON!! See how good our Supreme Court is? Even morons can express their opinions.

      March 4, 2011 at 8:09 am |
    • Nonimus

      Well said Tony.

      March 4, 2011 at 9:46 am |
    • jerry morton

      the ruling is wrong no one should have the right to do that at a funeral anyone's funeral especially a soldier, if it had been my son or dau's funeral there would have been real problems when i returned from viet nam a hippy walked up to me and started to spit on me, i had just gone thru a major mortar and rocket attack not 24 hours prior i told him you spit on me and i will kill you where you stand, he turned and walked away like the coward he was, our society bends over backwards now not to offend the blacks the gays the mexicans the arabs we are told we have no rights to our heritage from the south, why not the blacks and all sure keep theirs. remember one thing the blacks sold into slavery were mostly sold first by other blacks in africa. now stop and look at the crime rates and see who the majortiy of the problems come from. the gov needs to use a little common sense in rulings not just worry about their feeling we all have feeling these christian do gooder protesting the dead soldier make me sick and they should make all descent people sick and i think they will have to back up to the golden gates to try and get in

      March 4, 2011 at 12:08 pm |
    • Nonimus

      @Jerry,
      You sure you've chosen the correct side here. This church is protesting hom,os,exuality more than anything, they just show up at funerals for the publicity. It sounds to me like you might agree with them.

      March 4, 2011 at 3:07 pm |
    • Hannah

      So true!!! People will do what they're allowed to.... this is so wrong on sooo many levels.... sometimes I am ashamed of the rules of our nation that allow people to think ... in ANY way... that this is right!

      March 6, 2011 at 2:01 pm |
  19. Laura Wrzeski

    Freedom of..........sigh..........speech. OK.

    After all, the KKK/Nazis are allowed to march their clown-asses wherever they want to.

    This ruling means that good people must create some sort of network that alerts communities to a potential violation of a funeral by the Westboro-Whackjobs so that a human barrier can come between those hateful fanatics and mourners.

    March 3, 2011 at 11:08 pm |
  20. Jim

    I find it interesting that this group NOW has the nation's attention when they're protesting soldiers. But where was the nation's outrage when they were protesting Matthew Shepard's funeral? They've been doing this to the gay community for sometime now...it's just taken a few extra years for this group to get creative and target the rest of the nation.

    These people are just a reflection of the hatred that America has toward 'other' people. That's why we use such awful words like 'normal' and 'regular' as if any one person is NORMAL.

    March 3, 2011 at 11:02 pm |
    • DavidMichael

      Matthew Shepherd didn't die because he was gay...it was shown to be a drug situation gone very very bad. Try to keep up.

      March 5, 2011 at 5:35 pm |
    • ohdearsome1

      as a christian i dont agree with a gays decison but i love him as a brother

      March 7, 2011 at 9:50 pm |
    • pete perez

      i for one will not allow this to happen in my city. im a devil dog who has lost good friends over seas. if anyone tries, ill be wearing a new pair of bracelets

      March 11, 2011 at 10:16 am |
    • AuntInAZ

      It's not a question of 'now' because they are soldiers, it's a buildup of years of this crap. A lot of people didn't like it when it was Matthew Shepard's funeral either. They also tried to demonstrate at hearings for Matthew's murderers as well, but they were met by counter demonstrators. No one ignored them then either.

      And sorry DavidMichael that drug deal gone bad claim is a bunch of malarkey. Matthew was killed because he was gay.

      March 19, 2011 at 11:34 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.