Members of a controversial Baptist church said they were undeterred after a federal jury ordered them to pay nearly $11 million for protesting at the funeral of a marine killed in Iraq, claiming publicity from the trial will help them to spread their message that God hates homosexuals around the world.
“We are the No. 1 story on Google around the world,” defendant Shirley Phelps-Roper told Religion News Service. “You can’t buy that kind of advertising, even with $10.9 million.”
Wednesday’s judgment against members of Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., is reportedly the first-ever verdict against the group best known for picketing military funerals with signs claiming that war casualties are God’s judgment on America for condoning homosexuality.
A flier on the church’s God Hates Fags Web site carried a headline, “Thank God for the $10.9 Million Verdict!”
Calling the federal lawsuit in Baltimore the latest attempt to silence its warning of impending doom, the group claimed, “Not only did you fail to stop our preaching, but our message has gone forth to the entire world on this day, because of your folly, like never before.”
Albert Snyder of York, Pa., sued the church last year, claiming their presence near the March 2006 funeral of his son, Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, along with Internet postings about the protest, invaded the family’s privacy, defamed Snyder and intentionally inflicted emotional distress.
In an answer filed last November, a lawyer for the church admitted his clients “have in the past preached their interpretation of the Bible as it applies to homosexuals, including their beliefs concerning God’s hatred for homosexuals, believing that they love their neighbor by preaching to their neighbor.”
Westboro Baptist Church is a 75-member congregation composed mainly of relatives of Pastor Fred Phelps, a disbarred lawyer educated at Bob Jones University who has led the church since 1955. According to his Web bio, Phelps was ordained as a Southern Baptist minister in 1947, but the church isn’t affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention.
The church’s “outreach” ministry consists of more than 22,000 picketing demonstrations across America and in foreign countries during the past 12 years.
Starting with a 1991 demonstration at a Topeka park allegedly frequented by homosexuals, the church reached national prominence in 1998, when it picketed the funeral of Matthew Shepard. A “memorial” on the Westboro Baptist Church Web site says Shepard, a gay college student murdered near Laramie, Wyo., is in hell. Shepard is accompanied there, according to other church fliers, by public figures including Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II and Martin Luther King’s widow Coretta Scott King.
Protests have included less-than-obvious targets like Focus on the Family, the Southern Baptist Convention and the funeral of Jerry Falwell. While those groups are also anti-gay, Westboro protesters accuse them of watering down the Bible’s message of condemnation against homosexuals by telling gays God loves them, making them less likely to repent.
Attention to the group exploded in June 2005, when it moved beyond homosexual events to funerals of fallen soldiers carrying placards like “God Hates America,” “Thank God for IEDs” (improvised explosive devices) and with slogans like “They turned America over to fags; they’re coming home in body bags.”
Those demonstrations, met by taunts from passersby and counter protests, prompted at least 22 states to propose or enact laws to limit protests and funerals. The Phelpses, a family of lawyers, do not practice civil obedience but carefully abide by ordinances such as maintaining proper distance from churches.
According to media reports, Phelps vowed to appeal the judgment, which is about 10 times what Westboro’s lawyer said is the net worth of the church and three of its members on trial.
“It’s going to be reversed in five minutes,” Phelps said, according to the Baltimore Sun, adding the case “will elevate me to something more important” as it draws more publicity to his cause.
The defendants said it was their religious beliefs that were really on trial. Constitutional experts said the case could have a chilling effect on free speech.
In his instructions to jurors, according to the Sun, U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett said they must balance the church’s right to religious expression with the family’s right to privacy.
Arguing for punitive damages, the attorney for Snyder’s family called the Phelpses “malicious people” who celebrated a soldier’s death.
Shirley Phelps-Roper told EthicsDaily.com at a funeral protest in 2005 the group’s intent was not meanness but rather to “let America know of this abomination.”
“We have to be timely. We have to be topical,” she said. “That is what we are doing.”
According to the Department of Defense, as of mid-morning Nov. 1 there had been 3,837 U.S. military casualties in Iraq and 450 in Operation Enduring Freedom.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.
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