A case before the United States Supreme Court could provide clues as to how state lawmakers could re-fashion a law that sought to regulate protests at military funerals.
US Supreme Court Justices have heard the arguments in the case of Snyder versus Phelps. The justices must decide whether to let stand a $10 million judgment awarded to Albert Snyder. Snyder filed suit against Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas after the congregation protested his son’s funeral. Matthew Snyder, a Marine, was killed in Iraq at the age of 20. Snyder claimed the protests invaded his privacy, caused emotional distress and violated his rights to free exercise of religion and peaceful assembly.
A Baltimore jury ruled in Snyder’s favor, awarding him the $10 million judgment. The judge cut the award in half. A federal court of appeals overturned the decision, stating that though the rhetoric used by the protestors was offensive, it was protected as speech.
Missouri Senate leader Charlie Shields (R-St. Joseph) says that case differs from the case in Missouri that sparked efforts to regulate military funeral protests.
“To the extent people are following, including myself, what’s happening at the Supreme Court level, at the United States Supreme Court, is can we learn something from that and will future legislatures be able to craft a bill that provides the relief that we actually intended in our bill that was overturned?” says Shields.
State lawmakers acted in 2006 after the Westboro congregation staged a protest in St. Joseph at a military funeral. It isn’t just the protest, but the message that stirs such passion in this debate. The Westboro group is unapologetic in its message that America’s tolerance of homosexuality has led to military deaths on the battlefield. Signs held by members boldly declare messages such as, “God Hates the USA/Thank God for 9/11” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.”
The Missouri law banned protests from an hour before until an hour after a funeral service. It also stated that protestors must stay back at least 300 feet from the funeral procession and the funeral itself. Westboro sued and a federal judge overturned the state law, finding that the legislature failed to prove a compelling state interest to restrict the protests.
Shields says the Supreme Court might provide guidance for lawmakers to walk the fine line between free speech and privacy rights.
“If you look at the fact that those that are arguing that it’s just a First Amendment issue and that’s it, clearly it’s not a slam dunk or otherwise, the Supreme Court wouldn’t have taken up the case,” Shields says.