The Westboro Baptist Church, known for picketing the funerals of US soldiers with slogans such as ‘God hates fags’, has won an appeal on the First Amendment, which protects free speech.
The church, headed by Fred Phelps and his daughter Shirley Phelps-Roper, was sued for $5 million for invasion of privacy and emotional distress after it picketed a funeral for Marine lance corporal Matthew Snyder in Maryland.
Snyder’s father sued when the Kansas-based clan turned up at the funeral, held in 2006. They held up signs such as “Semper Fi, Semper Fags” (based on the Marines’ motto) and “Thank God for dead soldiers”.
Members of Westboro Baptist Church believe that the deaths of US soldiers in the middle east are God’s punishment for a country which allows homosexuality.
Albert Snyder’s $5 million claim was awarded by a jury in Baltimore but yesterday the federal appeals court threw out the verdict.
The three judges ruled that the “imaginative and hyperbolic rhetoric” used was protected by the First Amendment.
They added that the sentiment was intended to provoke debate and could not be reasonably seen as factual assertions about an individual.
Snyder is now considering whether to take the case to the Supreme Court, his lawyer Sean E Summers said.
“The most troubling fact is it leaves these grieving families helpless,” Summers said. “If you can’t use the civil process, you have no recourse.”
“We feel we owe that to Mr. Snyder and other families who have been harassed, humiliated and abused,” he added.
Shirley Phelps-Roper said she welcomed the possibility of arguing the case before the Supreme Court.
“The First Amendment was written for this situation right here. You may not put people on trial for their religious activity,” she said.