A father’s war against Westboro

If I never had to read another story about the Westboro Baptist Church and its “staged-for-media hatefests” — as Tmatt so aptly described the congregation’s protests last month — I just might make my own sign. “Thank God for small blessings,” it would read. Or something like that.

But the U.S. Supreme Court’s March 8 decision to review whether the First Amendment protects anti-gay protests at soldiers’ funerals pushed Westboro back into the news. Then late last month, Westboro made headlines again when an appeals court ordered a dead Marine’s father to pay $16,15o in court costs to church leader Fred Phelps. Insert collective groans — or at least my personal groans — here. So, when I came across an Associated Press piece tied to Westboro this week, I was prepared not to like it. Instead, I found it truly compelling.

Here’s the top of the story:

YORK, Pa. — Some nights Albert Snyder wakes up at 3 a.m. Other nights he doesn’t sleep at all, tormented by thoughts of the hateful signs carried by a fundamentalist church outside his Marine son’s funeral.

“Thank God for Dead Soldiers.”

“You’re Going to Hell.”

“Semper Fi Fags.”

Hundreds of grieving families have been targeted by the Westboro Baptist Church, which believes military deaths are the work of a wrathful God who punishes the United States for tolerating homosexuality.

Most mourners try to ignore the taunts. But Snyder couldn’t let it go. He became the first to sue the church to halt the demonstrations, and he’s pursued the group farther than anyone else.

While your GetReligionistas often complain about the use of the term “fundamentalist,” it seems to fit in this case — and actually may not go far enough in describing just how far right this group falls. Personally, I preferred the way the New York Daily News put it in the lede of a recent story, referring to Westboro as a “bizarre church” But I don’t suppose an AP writer could get away with such a characterization — no matter how true. And in all seriousness, we probably don’t want MSM reporters deciding what’s bizarre and what’s not. But I digress.

The AP story noted:

Lance Cpl. Matthew A. Snyder, 20, was not gay. But for the Westboro church, any dead soldier is fair game.

This was not the first substantive profile of Albert Snyder and his battle against Westboro. The Baltimore Sun beat AP to the punch with a 2,250-word story on Snyder that provided excellent insight into the grieving father’s plight and telling details about Westboro’s tactics, such as this gripping section:

The military took care of the funeral details, and Snyder thought he had already endured the worst, losing his son.

He had no idea what to think when the Westboro Baptist Church issued a news release March 8, 2006, saying that Matthew “died in shame, not honor — for a fag nation cursed by God” and that they planned to bring their anti-gay gospel to the funeral at “St. John’s Catholic dog kennel.”

Snyder had never heard of these people, but officials had. They sent state and county police to the funeral, along with an ambulance, a fire truck and even a mobile command center.

The windows were blocked at the Catholic school next door and a SWAT team was placed inside the church, mixed in with hundreds of mourners.

“I had no idea they would be as disgusting as they were,” Snyder said.

While the Sun did a nice job, the AP took the report to a higher level journalistically — and in about half as much space. Not only does the AP story put a real human face on the plaintiff in the Supreme Court case, but it also frames the constitutional issues in an extraordinary way. It raises the possibility — farfetched as it might seem to many — that the law may favor Westboro. And therein lies the rub.

On the plaintiff’s side, there’s this:

As Snyder sees it, Westboro isn’t engaging in constitutionally protected speech when it pickets funerals. He argues that Phelps and his followers are disrupting private assemblies and harassing people at their most vulnerable — behavior that’s an incitement to violence.

“This is more than free speech. This is like yelling, ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theater. Somebody’s going to get hurt,” Snyder said, his voice rising and eyes welling with tears.

On the Westboro side, there’s this:

Not everyone is on Snyder’s side, even if they find Westboro’s protests loathsome.

They point to the undisputed facts of the case. Westboro contacted police before its protest, which was conducted in a designated area on public land — 1,000 feet from the church where the Mass was held in Westminster, Md.

The protesters — Phelps and six family members — broke no laws. Snyder knew they were present, but he did not see their signs or hear their statements until he turned on the news at his son’s wake.

Jonathan M. Turley, a George Washington University law professor, asked his constitutional law class to grapple with the case. At first, the entire class was sympathetic to Snyder. But after they dug deeper, they concluded that Westboro’s speech was protected by the First Amendment.

I do wish the AP story had taken a sentence or two to make it clear that Westboro is an independent congregation with no ties to the Southern Baptist Convention or the nation’s other Baptist conventions and networks. But overall, AP deserves praise for a well-written report that manages to balance the father’s personal story, the court case background and the pending Supreme Court arguments in a balanced, nuanced way.

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • http://www.millionfagmarch.com Chris Love

    Don’t wait for the Phelps to come after you. Help us protest them at their place on May 1st. 2:00pm @ Gage Park Amphitheater (just blocks from the Westboro Baptist Church, about as close as the law will let us be).

    This year there will be a guest speaker, and I couldn’t be more honored to have him. Nate Phelps, who is the estranged son of Fred Phelps and an ex-member of the Westboro Baptist Church, will be here. Nate left both the church and his family behind at age 18 and now actively speaks out about the abuse he and his siblings suffered growing up in church.

    Find out more using the info below.

    Contact: Chris Love
    Tel: 785-783-4730
    Email: mfm@millionfagmarch.com
    Web: http://www.millionfagmarch.com
    Facebook event page: http://tinyurl.com/mfm3-fb

  • http://www.hairyeyeball.wordpress.com Kate Sanderson

    You can say all you like about Canada’s hate speach laws – but what Wesboro does would land its people in jail here, and rightly so. Some limits on free speach are appropriate.

  • http://jettboy.blogspot.com Jettboy

    Rightly so? Sorry, but that is NOT the direction I want the U.S. to go, although “Political Correctness” is taking us there. Why, by the way, is it always the “Right” that is getting put in jail for free speech (and I am not talking about the illegal activities they might do while speaking) and the “Left” always gets away with anything they say? Free speech for me and not for thee seems to be the motto. I can’t wait until some right-leaning newspaper calls voices from the left hate speech and sues in a Canadian court of law; and I don’t mean some religious Muslim fanatic.

  • SP Gerety

    While your GetReligionistas often complain about the use of the term “fundamentalist,” it seems to fit in this case — and actually may not go far enough in describing just how far right this group falls.

    We should be wary of using the term “fundamentalist” to convey where someone falls on the spectrum of left-right, worldly politics. I would definitely call myself a fundamentalist Christian, but I wouldn’t say I belong anywhere on this spectrum. My citizenship in the Kingdom of Heaven precludes my involvement in the politics of this world. I don’t think I’m alone in believing this.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    SP, interesting observation. I was meaning to refer to a theological spectrum, not a political one, but maybe that’s the obvious connotation. Thank you for your comment.

  • Dave

    I’ve spent 50 years supporting the First Amendment rights of unwelcome messengers including communists, nazis, clinic picketers and the Westboro crowd. It would be highly appropriate for the press to show us what makes the Phelps clan tick. “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”

  • SP Gerety

    I was meaning to refer to a theological spectrum, not a political one, but maybe that’s the obvious connotation.

    Thanks for the response and clarification, Bobby. The problem with the terms right and left is that their political origin makes use in other contexts difficult without dragging along a lot of extra baggage. ‘Liberal’ and ‘conservative’ might be a bit more accurate when discussing theology, but I wouldn’t really call the Westboro folks conservative, either, as that implies some continuity with tradition. As difficult as it may be for journalists to use, ‘bizarre’ really might be the best classification.

  • str

    “You can say all you like about Canada’s hate speach laws – but what Wesboro does would land its people in jail here, and rightly so. Some limits on free speach are appropriate.”

    Eh, and so would Chinese legislation!

    I don’t think that anyone should be allowed to picket on funerals, no matter whether anyone was a soldier or a homosexual or both or neither! I don’t any of these groups deserve special protection (and that is, among other things, what’s wrong with Canadian laws!)

    But if somebody does asinine protests far away from cemeteries…

  • bob

    This tribe doesn’t merit religious coverage anymore than any “Aryan” group does. Once in America’s past some folks got a ceremonial trip to the edge of town on a rail decorated in tar & feathers. I bet only one such treatment would have a great effect, and it would be unnoticed by local law enforcement.

  • Dave

    bob, the picket-sign theology of the Phelps clan has enough overlap — or at least edge-to-edge contact — with more standard-brand churches as to be provocative. It’s reasonable for journalists to dig an inch or so behind the picket signs to ventilate the comparisons and contrasts. That’s what journalists do. It’s not a question of who “merit[s] coverage.”

  • http://www.pricebonus.com/ Michelle

    I was meaning to refer to a theological spectrum, not a political one, but maybe that’s the obvious connotation.

    Thanks for the response and clarification, Bobby. The problem with the terms right and left is that their political origin makes use in other contexts difficult without dragging along a lot of extra baggage. ‘Liberal’ and ‘conservative’ might be a bit more accurate when discussing theology, but I wouldn’t really call the Westboro folks conservative, either, as that implies some continuity with tradition. As difficult as it may be for journalists to use, ‘bizarre’ really might be the best classification.

  • Nicole

    Personally, being a proud Canadian, I feel as if this situation could have been prevented. In Canada, I can say my opinion openly as long as it does not attack or directly offend another group, ethnicity, religious following or person in any way shape or form. Is that a wrong restriction? Would not being alowed to say “you suck because you’re a white son of a bitch” or “all homosexuals are going to hell in a hand bag” be really that bad? In my opinion, the United States lacks any form of reasonable restrictions on their constitution.

    Free Speech doesn’t mean Free Attack. I don’t believe that any of this is right. As Kate said, if these people did that in Canada, they would get charged, brought to court and arrested for Harrassment, Discrimination, and a whack more charges. Canada isn’t perfect, some of our laws are questionable. However, we’re safe. We can’t run up to a grieving family and basically say “your son died because god hates homosexuals.”

    One of the rights I love that Canada has in its Charter is the right not to have a religion forced upon you. Aka: Right to freedom of Religion. You can’t walk up to someone and start speaking the tounge of your religion and persist even if the person says “stop.” That’s a restriction we have on our freedom of expression/speech/opinion/religion/media/etc; How is that wrong? In this case, would it not have saved Snyder some grief? My mom passed away, if I saw someone picketing at my mothers funeral I would have blown a fuse. It’s neither right nor moral to allow people to express negative, hurtful opinions directed at a particular group of people that singles them out and harms them emotionally or reputationally. It’s not fair or right to let a whole nation of people speak what they want with no concequeces.
    Would you get mad at me if I said “all americans suck the big balls of jesus and goto hell?” or “all americans eat crap from their boyfriends bum hole.” Would that not offend you? I can’t say thoes things because of the laws in my country. I could probably say “I don’t really like you…” but I couldn’t say “I dont like you because you’re a homosexual, black, crapper and all homosexual, black male crappers suck.” That would be completely against the law.

    Another point to be raised would be the fact that the “slippery Slope” argument is not an argument at all. I study Philosophy and English. If I were to write a report or essay saying “If we allow this person to eat candy, then Everyone would have to eat candy and that just can’t happen.” or even more extreme as “If we allow euthanasia, eventually everyone will be commiting free murder.” I would fail or be yelled at. These aren’t realistic arguments because you can’t tell the future. You don’t KNOW if 50 years down the road all of a sudden the American population will be so restricted they cant say excuse me without being charged. It’s not that dramatic and you shouldn’t flatter yourselves. Everything you’ve done we’ve done and vice versa.

    Going on the point of fallacious arguments, the fact that the church attacked Snyder directly, as stated in the account of the message he recieved, blaming deaths of soldiers on gays isn’t going to make the soldiers stop defending the country, or people stop from being gay. The soldiers protect you, represent your country and allow you to sleep…even a Little better at night. Would you agree that attacking the force that carries weapons and protects your country from harm is a little bit illogical? Thats worse then biting the hand that feeds than throwing salt and lemon juice on the wound while jabbing them in the eyes.

    I’m not going to try to change your laws or your view. I agree that the idea of ultimate free speech sounds pretty tight, but I’m just trying to say that there’s other options and reasons and views on the situation. Instead of going all mechanic and saying “Free speech sucker, you can’t touch me” why not display some kind of restraint.

    (The opinions expressed in this comment do not directly attack nor wish to directly attack any particular group or person. Any offencive remarks were clearly hypothetical and not the views of the person in question. None of the “attacks” staged on the american nation are real attacks and should not be taken as such. Furthermore, do not attack me or my country. I admit to exaggerating a smidge, forgive me, I’m a drama queen.)

    FYI: no one is above the law. Right and Left get burned for going against the charter even if they do a little dance while doing it.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    In Canada, I can say my opinion openly as long as it does not attack or directly offend another group, ethnicity, religious following or person in any way shape or form.

    What part of that is free speech?