What’s in the Westboro name?

Westboro Baptist ChurchIt is interesting to watch how journalists cover the ongoing legal saga of the Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church. The most recent news has a judge cutting in half the punitive damage award granted by a jury to the father of Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder after the group protested at the Marine’s funeral.

If you haven’t heard, this group isn’t you average set of protesters. They show up at soldiers funerals and hold signs that say “Thank God for dead soldiers” and say they believe soldiers are being killed overseas as part of God’s punishment for “the nation’s tolerance of homosexuality.”

Here’s the Associated Press in The Kansas City Star:

BALTIMORE — A federal judge in Baltimore has upheld the October jury verdict in the lawsuit brought against a Kansas-based fundamentalist church group for its anti-gay protest at the 2006 Maryland funeral of a Marine killed in Iraq….

Westboro members believe U.S. deaths in Iraq are punishment for the nation’s tolerance of homosexuality.

Needless to say, these protests are especially disgusting, and it would be hard to find a journalist out there that would want speech such as this protected under the Constitution’s First Amendment. It would be interesting though for a journalist to find a group or person that believes that this type of speech should be protected outside the Westboro group. My guess is that finding someone would be pretty difficult.

Since free speech is not really the issue anymore in this case, the big question is whether or not $10.9 million is a proper amount of money to both deter the group and restore the family of Lance Cpl. Snyder.

As the author of The Baltimore Sun version of the story rightly states, the federal judge’s reduction in the punitive damage award to $2.1 million may not ultimately stand. The jury in the trial granted additional compensatory damages totaling $2.9 million.

This Sun story does an especially good job describing the legal posture of the case and accurately explains the issues at stake. But take a look at how the author frames the Westboro group in both the lead and later on in the story because it has some significant implications:

A federal judge in Baltimore substantially reduced Monday the amount of damages a Kansas-based anti-gay group and three of its leading members must pay for their protest at a Marine’s funeral in Westminster….

Made up almost entirely of relatives of its founder, Fred Phelps Sr., the fire-and-brimstone Christian group, based in Topeka, has protested military funerals across the country with placards bearing shock-value messages such as “Thank God for dead soldiers.”

The story refers to the group as a church several times throughout the story but only refers to its claim to be a Baptist church once, and that is when its technical title is mentioned. Clearly there are plenty of Baptists out there who would not want to associate with the Westboro group. While it is necessary to include the group’s given title, it might be worth noting that the church is not affiliated with any Baptist conventions or associations and no Baptist institution recognizes the group.

Also note that the AP described the group as fundamentalist. Can journalists really use that word to describe anything these days? There are so many ways to criticize the use of that word that it’s grown rather useless for the purposes of news reporting.

Of course there is the question of whether or not it is appropriate to call this group a church. They claim to follow Calvinist and Baptist principles, but some believe that the group is more accurately described as a cult than a church. Of course, how you define a cult? As Terry pointed out earlier, it’s not easily done.

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  • Chris Bolinger

    The term “fundamentalist” is bad enough, but the Sun‘s choice of “fire-and-brimstone Christian group” is worse. It’s an intentionally inflammatory and incredibly poor choice.

  • http://tmamone.blogspot.com Travis Mamone

    “Extremist cult” would be a better choice than “fundamentalist church.”

  • Dave Griffey

    I would go so far to say that most Baptists would not want to be associated with the group. Being a former Baptist from the right-leaning side of things, I didn’t hear one minister or member have anything but loathing for what the Westboro gang does.

  • Linda Buhl

    Is this one of those situations where we have to rest on “I’ll defend to the death your right to say it”? Seems that the term church can be used by absolutely anybody for pretty much anything. Press using anything realistic would have a hard time getting printed – hate mongering fringe group probably wouldn’t be considered fair and even handed, bet you couldn’t even say alleged church without somebody squealing. It is a sad day when once again, in the name of Jesus, something is done which is by any definition obscene.

  • Jerry

    it would be hard to find a journalist out there that would want speech such as this protected under the Constitution’s First Amendment.

    I really hope you’re wrong. Unless it’s the fire in a crowded theater situation, the Constitution protects speech, even abhorrent and disgusting speech. Let’s not forget that the same clause that protects speech also protects religion. And the judgements we make about what speech is protected also carry over to what religious expression is protected. Of course there are some forms that are forbidden, say religion that practices human sacrifice, but we need to be really careful about what speech or religion we put beyond the pale.

  • Michael

    it would be hard to find a journalist out there that would want speech such as this protected under the Constitution’s First Amendment. It would be interesting though for a journalist to find a group or person that believes that this type of speech should be protected outside the Westboro group. My guess is that finding someone would be pretty difficult.

    The ACLU has filed a lawsuit on behalf of Westboro. And there’s a strong argument that the government barring them from a funeral or limiting their access creates serious First Amendment problems. The abortion clinic protestor cases are a good model of what kind of limits are and are not acceptable.

    Here’s an AP story from the ACLU action.

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/07/22/AR2006072200643.html

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00368463715994694203 FrGregACCA

    While it is necessary to include the group’s given title, it might be worth noting that the church is not affiliated with any Baptist conventions or associations and no Baptist institution recognizes the group.

    Probably correct. However, given the radically congregationalist ecclesiology of the Baptist tradition, the phrase “Independent Baptist Church” is, in effect, redundant.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    “Not your average set of protesters?” To me they sound just like the average gang of lefty “peaceful protesters”.

    Sure, go ahead and delete this. But I have HAD it with being told by “liberals” that four years in constant fear of bodily harm from “anti-war protesters” DIDN’T HAPPEN.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    And I have gotten the “You aren’t REAL Christians” routine too many times (Remember Dobson pronouncing Fred Thompson “not a real Christian”?) to feel any respect for attempts to draw a circle around “real” Baptists (or Jews, or Wiccans, or Satanists). If Phelps has been baptizing infants while the press’ backs are turned, then there would be justification for pronouncing him unBaptist. But apart from that criterion, who gets to say? The Baptist World Alliance? I would bet that there are plenty of Primitive Baptists, Landmark Baptists, Particular Baptists, General Baptists and buzzard Baptists (who only show up for funerals) who have nothing to do with the BWA.

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  • Carrie

    The Westboro group is nothing more than a hate group. Just what our world doesn’t need – another hate group.


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