The father of a 20-year-old Marine killed March 3 in Iraq has sued members of a Kansas Baptist church that picketed his son’s funeral carrying signs with messages including “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” and the “Pope is in Hell.”
Albert Snyder of York, Pa., sued members of WestboroBaptistChurch in Topeka, Kan., in the U.S. District Court in Maryland for defamation, invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress for picketing the March 10 funeral at St. John’s Catholic Church in Westminster, Md., of Lance Cpl. Matthew A. Snyder.
It is thought to be the first lawsuit aimed at stopping protests by church members made infamous for picketing the funeral of University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard in 1998, funerals of other homosexuals and–in the last several months–funerals of soldiers killed in action in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The group, most of whom are relatives of controversial pastor Fred Phelps, claims deaths in Iraq are the result of God’s judgment on America for tolerating homosexuality. “You turned America over the fags,” one slogan says. “They’re coming home in body bags.”
While offensive to most people, the message has gotten attention. Formerly an obscure group best known for showing up outside religious meetings, including the Southern Baptist Convention, carrying their distinctive “God Hates Fags” placards, Westboro Baptist Church is fast becoming a household name.
At least nine states have passed laws limiting demonstrations at funerals, all aimed at the Kansas group. President Bush signed the “Respect for America’s Fallen Heroes Act” on Memorial Day, making it a federal crime to picket within 300 feet of the entrance of a national cemetery and within 150 feet of a road into the cemetery.
Westboro Baptist Church planned its first protest since the law’s passage on Tuesday at Arlington National Cemetery, followed by planned protests at all 122 national cemeteries over the next several months, all while obeying provisions of the new law.
Members of Westboro Baptist Church, several of whom are lawyers, announced a press conference saying the funeral protests will continue and warning that anyone filing “frivolous” lawsuits will be named in counter claims and separate lawsuits alleging violations of civil rights.
“Everyone knows this picketing is protected, and it violates criminal and civil law to conspire to misuse the court system trying to stop it,” according to a statement. “Thousands of people appear outside funerals and memorial services to take a position on how God is dealing with America, and why the soldiers are dying. You hate our view on that issue, but you can’t stop it. Anyone who tries will be held accountable in a courtroom.”
Matthew Snyder had been in Iraq only a month when he died in a non-combat vehicle accident in Al Anbar Province. His father claims in the lawsuit that statements that he taught his son to be an “idolator” by raising him as a Catholic are outrageous and defamatory.
Matthew Snyder’s mother, who is divorced from Albert Snyder, opposes the lawsuit and discouraged anyone from contributing to an “Albert Snyder Legal Fund” soliciting donations on www.matthewsynder.org.
According to their Web site, members of Westboro Baptist Church will picket next week’s Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting in Greensboro, N.C., 5:45-6:30 p.m. on Tuesday and noon-1 p.m. and 5-6 p.m. on Wednesday.
They will protest setting up an “idol,” referring to dedication of a bronze statue honoring the life and ministry of Billy Graham, referring to the evangelist as a “lying false prophet.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.