A jury in the United States has awarded the father of a Marine whose funeral was targeted by Fred Phelps’ anti-gay group nearly $11m in damages.
It is the first individual lawsuit brought against Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) for its protests at military funerals.
Albert Snyder claimed that protesters from the Kansas-based anti-gay group destroyed his only chance to bury in peace the son he lost in Iraq. He filed a complaint in June 2006.
The picketers, who had carried signs with messages such as “Thank God for dead soldiers,” have said that they were trying to oppose gays in the military.
During the civil trial in a Baltimore federal court, the jury considered whether Westboro Baptist Church was liable for an intentional infliction of emotional distress based on the message from its members’ signs.
The jurors decided the Snyder family’s expectation of privacy at Matthew Snyder’s funeral was violated by the church members’ protest outside St. John Roman Catholic Church in Westminster.
Westboro Baptist – which has about 75 members, the vast majority of whom are relatives of Phelps – protests at funerals using anti-gay slurs but without regard to the presumed sexual orientation of the soldier, church members have said.
Three adults and four children marched outside Snyder’s funeral in March 2006, waving placards expressing their belief that the military’s combat losses is a direct result of immoral behaviour, including homosexuality, among its ranks.
First Amendment experts had said these types of lawsuits often founder because even the most hateful speech is usually protected.
In April 2007 the Governor of Kansas signed into law a bill aimed at stopping WBC from protesting at the funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq.
Kansas joined 16 other states in introducing local legislation to bar the hate group’s activities.
“It’s disgraceful for anyone to try and disrupt a funeral,” said Governor Kathleen Sebelius.
“It is unfortunate this reprehensible practice has been exported to other states.”
They are banned from coming within 150 feet of a funeral one hour before, during or two hours after the end of the service.
Violators would face up to a $1,000 fine and six months in jail.
It also makes it illegal to obstruct any public street or sidewalk and allows family members to sue if they feel protesters defamed the deceased.
The church was the subject of a BBC2 documentary by Louis Theroux broadcast earlier this year.
On April 2nd a spokesman for the Swedish Royal Family confirmed that Westboro Baptist church leader Rev Fred Phelps has been faxing hate messages to them.
It is thought that Rev Phelps has taken against Sweden after an outspoken minister, Åke Green, was convicted of inciting hatred of gay people following a homophobic sermon.
“You’re doomed to spend eternity in hell,” Phelps is alleged to have said in one of the fax messages.
“All you Swedes and your Swedish king and his family.”