American Proscenium

Federalizing Funerals

The Westboro Baptist Church and its bizarre octogenarian pastor, Fred Phelps, won a major victory at the Supreme Court in March.  In an 8-1 decision, the Court reversed a multimillion-dollar award to the family of Marine L.Cpl. Matthew Snyder, who was killed while serving in Iraq.

In 2006, Westboro members showed up outside the fallen soldier’s funeral in Westminster, Maryland, with their usual signs: “God Hates Fags,” “Thank God for IEDs,” “You’re Going to Hell.”  Subsequently, Matthew’s father brought suit for intentional infliction of emotional distress, defamation, and other torts.  The jury found that Westboro’s actions were outrageous and awarded $2.9 million in compensatory damages and $8 million in punitive damages.

Westboro appealed, arguing that the First Amendment insulated it from state-law claims.  The Richmond-based Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, and the Supreme Court affirmed.

Writing for the Court, Chief Justice John Roberts recognized that the Westboro signage fell “short of refined social and political commentary,” but he emphasized that Westboro was raising “matters of public import.”  This was not an attack on the Snyder family or Matthew, the Court reasoned—Snyder was not a homosexual, a fact recognized even by Westboro—but an effort to further public debate on homosexuality and other...

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