WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld the right of Westboro Baptist Church to protest at military funerals with its virulent anti-gay message, which has provoked outrage across the country and along the political spectrum.
In a free-speech ruling that challenges popular opinion and could reopen debate, the court ruled that the First Amendment protects even deliberately obnoxious funeral protests such as the church's infamous "God hates fags" message.
"Given that Westboro's speech was at a public place on a matter of public concern, that speech is entitled to special protection under the First Amendment," Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. wrote for the majority.
The court's 8-1 decision in Snyder v. Phelps shields the Topeka, Kan.-based Westboro church from being sued for intentional infliction of emotional distress despite speech that Roberts called "hurtful." The ruling didn't reverse funeral- protest restrictions states have imposed, and it still permits governments to reasonably regulate the time, place and manner of public speech.
Still, Westboro attorney and church member Margie J. Phelps said Wednesday that the ruling would embolden challenges to funeral protest restrictions. Incited by the church's picketing, more than 40 states -- including Kansas, California, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, Texas and Washington -- have enacted such laws.
"All of those are ill-designed and completely unconstitutional," Phelps said.
"There's going to be all sorts of appealing."
After first taking time to "thank God and praise his reign," Phelps said she wasn't surprised by the decision, although she voiced particular satisfaction in the strength of Roberts' majority opinion.
Few elected officials would have been likely to reach the same opinion.
Forty-two senators, including the respective leaders of the Democrats and Republicans, as well as the attorneys general in 48 states, had urged the court to oppose the church. The politically potent American Legion and Veterans of Foreign War likewise had sought to crimp the protests, with VFW National Commander Richard L. Eubank saying Wednesday that he was "greatly disappointed" with the ruling.
"Westboro's funeral picketing is certainly hurtful and its contribution to public discourse may be negligible," Roberts acknowledged in his 15-page majority opinion. "But ... speech cannot be restricted simply because it is upsetting or arouses contempt."
Justice Samuel Alito dissented, saying free speech shouldn't be "a license for the vicious verbal assault that occurred in this case."
In 2007, a Pennsylvania jury had slapped Westboro with a $10.9 million judgment for its demonstration at the March 2006 funeral of Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder. Snyder died March 3, 2006, in Iraq's Anbar province.
The church members didn't know Snyder or his father, Albert, but seven of them traveled from Kansas to Maryland to demonstrate. They stood outside the Roman Catholic church where the services were held, holding signs with messages such as "Thank God for Dead Soldiers," "God Hates Fags" and "You're Going to Hell."
David Rocah, a staff attorney with the Maryland office of the American Civil Liberties Union, predicted that the opinion would have little bearing on state laws. Instead, he said, the ruling's importance is in protecting provocative and unpopular speakers from lawsuits based on alleged infliction of emotional distress.