Search Results for: Westboro

Can we let Fred Phelps and Westboro Baptist rest in peace?

There’s no such thing as bad publicity — at least that’s how the saying goes.

I beg to differ when it comes to the late Fred Phelps, Westboro Baptist Church and promoting your business.

From my home state today comes this front-page story in The Oklahoman. Take a moment to read it so we’re all on the same billboard, er … page.

Now then, let’s talk about what constitutes newsworthiness and how that differs from creating news.

Newsworthiness is well defined at this link via Media.com. It offers five factors: timing, significance, proximity, prominence and human interest — and says that stories should meet two of the five criteria to be considered newsworthy.

Sound old school? Some would argue that it is, and those types have added several more categories to the mix, including the bizarre factor and conflict.

The Oklahoman story is banking solely on those two additional categories by printing this story — and it’s written that way:

Moore Liquor, at 914 SW 4, has gained a local reputation for its humorous, frequently off-color marquee signs. The shop marquee even has its own Facebook page and Twitter account, where followers can see regular photos of the latest roadside witticisms.

“Fred Phelps, 1929-2014. Champagne 10% off! Not a coincidence,” is the latest storefront marquee message.

Shop owner Bryan Kerr said he put up the sign this week after Phelps died March 19. Phelps gained national fame after picketing the funeral of gay college student Matthew Shepard after he was murdered in 1998 in Laramie, Wyo.

“Fred Phelps is the kind of guy who is very difficult for reasonable people to like, and I knew I wanted to do something that had just a little bit of humor but wasn’t too disrespectful,” Kerr said.

Kerr tries to keep the liquor store marquee fresh with frequent references to pop culture and current events. “If you’re watching Dancing with the Stars sober, you are doing it wrong,” one recent message said.

Westboro Baptist Church was tipped off about the marquee and used its own Twitter account to let the masses know it would pay Moore Liquor a visit on its way to a Texas protest and that God hates gays.

And this is news. (Alternative punctuation: And this is news?)

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Escape from Westboro Baptist, for some reason or another

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Let’s face it, the edgy folks at the Westboro Baptist Church are not easy to cover in a fair and accurate manner. You think?

However, did I miss something? When did the Westboro people join a liturgical church or pack up and move to Louisiana (or maybe Canada)?

What am I talking about?

Find yourself a decent online dictionary and look up the word “parish.” You’ll usually find something that reads like this:

par·ish … n.

1. a. An administrative part of a diocese that has its own church in the Anglican, Roman Catholic, and some other churches. b. The members of such a parish; a religious community attending one church.

2. A political subdivision of a British county, usually corresponding in boundaries to an original ecclesiastical parish.

3. An administrative subdivision in Louisiana that corresponds to a county in other U.S. states.

I think it is safe to assume that the independent Westboro flock — which preaches a brand of free-church Protestantism that even the most conservative of Baptists would consider bizarre if not heretical — has not jumped into a Catholic, Orthodox or Anglican diocese. Also, I think the church is still up in Kansas.

Why do I bring this up? Read this Toronto Star copy carefully:

It was a different kind of coming-out moment for two members of the Westboro Baptist Church.

In a blog post published Wednesday, Megan Phelps-Roper and her younger sister Grace announced their exodus from the Westboro Baptist Church, a Kansas-based parish made infamous by its “God hates fags” campaign.

“We know that we’ve done and said things that hurt people. Inflicting pain on others wasn’t the goal, but it was one of the outcomes,” wrote Megan Phelps-Roper. “What we can do is try to find a better way to live from here on. That’s our focus.”

The Westboro Baptist Church was started in 1955 by Fred Phelps, Grace and Megan’s grandfather, exclusively for the Phelps family. The parish has been lambasted for protesting the funerals of American solders, whom they claim died because of America’s acceptance of homosexuality.

What? Did the people who wrote and edited this story assume that a “church” or “congregation” is the same thing as a “parish”? It would appear so. They made that mistake more than once.

This is a bizarre, but rather symbolic, little mistake. The bigger problem found in this story is more common in Westboro coverage.

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Westboro nutjobs protest Billy Graham

As we’ve lamented a few times (or a million) here at GetReligion, nobody puts on a staged-for-media hatefest like the spiritual termites of the Westboro Baptist Church.

This week, the Westboro nutjobs brought their tired, “God Hates Fags” spectacle to the Rev. Billy Graham’s North Carolina backyard. The local paper — the Asheville Citizen-Times — provided front-page coverage.

I’ve said it before, but I’d be perfectly happy if I never had to read another word about Fred Phelps, Westboro’s certifiably wacky pastor, or his family. In most cases, I believe the best media approach to Westboro is to ignore it. In the case of the Asheville story, I don’t know enough about the circumstances to say whether the paper should have covered the “protest” or not.

But if for whatever reason — be it the splash Westboro made in the community or the law enforcement resources assigned to the protest — the Citizen-Times determined that coverage was necessary, then it could have been improved in a few ways.

The top of the story:

ASHEVILLE — A controversial Topeka, Kan., church known for its anti-gay protests at events across the country took aim Tuesday at Billy Graham, saying the renowned evangelist was more interested in wealth and power than preaching the Gospel.

About a dozen sign-carrying protesters from Westboro Baptist Church picketed outside the Billy Graham Training Center in Swannanoa, then traveled to nearby Montreat to continue their protest.

Also on hand were about 20 counterprotesters from Asheville, who called Westboro members a hate group not welcome in North Carolina.

A dozen officers from the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office, N.C. Highway Patrol and Black Mountain and Montreat police departments stood by to maintain order.

“Billy Graham is one of the most influential men in the world, but he has not used his bully pulpit to preach the Gospel,” said Westboro member Paulette Phelps, daughter-in-law of the church’s pastor, Fred Phelps.

Keep reading, and the story pits Westboro’s extreme anti-gay statements against the views of counterprotesters who suggest that a loving God has no problem with homosexuality. Graham seems almost an afterthought.

Not until the 17th paragraph of the story — two paragraphs from the bottom — does the paper provide Graham’s response:

In its only comment on the protests, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association noted in an emailed statement, “The central message of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association today is the same message Mr. Graham has faithfully preached for more than 70 years — it’s a message of God’s love for all people and the hope that only comes through a relationship with Jesus Christ. While they have the right to express themselves, we don’t share their opinions or condone their methods.”

Shouldn’t that statement have appeared much higher in the story?

Meanwhile, while Graham’s teachings/views/beliefs on homosexuality seem to be at the center of the story, the paper never provides any context on his past comments on that issue.

Maybe everyone in Asheville already knows exactly where Graham stands, but someone new to the issue might be left wondering. If the Graham camp wouldn’t talk, surely a Graham expert could have been found to explain to readers what he has said and where he stands, if anywhere, on the issue.

In just the last month and a half, Graham made news by weighing in on a same-sex marriage referendum in North Carolina. USA Today reported:

“At 93, I never thought we would have to debate the definition of marriage,” Billy Graham’s statement said. “The Bible is clear — God’s definition of marriage is between a man and a woman. I want to urge my fellow North Carolinians to vote for the marriage amendment” Tuesday.

That background would have been helpful in the Asheville story.

Another omission that GetReligion has stressed repeatedly in its critiques of Westboro stories: The paper does not make clear that Westboro is an independent, fundamentalist outfit that has no ties to other Baptist groups — such as the Southern Baptist Convention, to which Graham belongs. Again, that background would have been helpful.

Now, please slither away, Westboro.

Billy Graham image via Shutterstock

NPR shocked Westboro stories go viral

A celebrity death sort of goes like this: Celebrity dies, people tweet a lot of RIPs. Westboro Baptist Church announces its plans to protest the funeral, people tweet a lot of OMGs.

Westboro, if you recall, is the group that holds signs like “God hates fags,” yes, generally startling stuff if you haven’t seen it before. But they also do this all the time, so it’s pretty expected.

The small group has been doing these kinds of things for quite a while, so it ceases to amaze me. But every time they do it, I guess, you find people who haven’t heard of the group. People are still shocked it exists and I’m still shocked that they’re shocked.

NPR continues to cover (I count three stories so far) a very important story about a 9-year-old boy who held up a little sign that reads ‘GOD HATES NO ONE.’” Here’s the intro from the interview.

Every now and again, we like to tell you more about an image or video that’s captured public attention. Today, we want to talk about a photo. It’s an image of a protest and a counter-protest.

For years, members of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas have shown up at public events, including military funerals, to spread their message that God is punishing America for the sin of homosexuality. They carry signs with slogans, such as God Hates America and God Hates Homosexuals – although, on that sign, they very often use a derogatory term that we are not going to repeat.

Well, after seeing these signs and these protests, Josef Miles, a Topeka nine-year-old, decided to make his own sign with the message God Hates No One. He stood next to Westboro demonstrator, and his mom posted a photo on Facebook. Well, to date, NPR’s blog post about this has been shared on Facebook more than 100,000 times, and that doesn’t even count all the other ways social media users are passing it around.

When someone explains “It went viral,” it seems kind of quaint. This very dramatic slinky-on-a-treadmill video has a million views and I don’t see any news stories or interviews about its viral-ness.

I realize an interviewer isn’t going to ask super specific question of a 9-year-old boy, but there’s something huge missing from her interview. Was there no thought to ask about his faith or his mother’s faith? Was there any faith motivation behind his desire to send a counter message? It’s so glaring it’s painful.

Back to the big picture, though, what do we do with these kinds of stories? Is there anything more to it besides traffic bait? Westboro stories seem to do pretty well on the Internet, so it kind of feeds itself in a circular pattern. Unless Westboro is doing something unusual, like changing laws or something out of the ordinary, it ceases to be news by its very nature.

Westboro intends to shock, people get shocked, people share the stories, and it’s one crazy cycle. But if we know it’s going to happen, why do we still cover it, especially in multiple ways?

Image of viral signs via Shutterstock.

This Westboro voice sounds strangely familiar

The Westboro Baptist Church saga has always intrigued and appalled me, in large part because of my background in church-state studies and First Amendment rights. I am also intrigued with people who are so radical that they defy easy description. As the old saying goes, sometimes people go so far to the right that they end up on the left (and vice versa).

Thus, I have always wondered what would happen if mainstream reporters actually listened to the Westboro Baptist folks and tried to describe, for example, why they think that Southern Baptists and ordinary evangelicals are raving liberals. Dig deep into this search file and you can see traces of that, as well as in this Scripps Howard News Service column from last fall. Note, in particular, the links to a 2003 Baptist Press piece about the radical theological beliefs of the Rev. Fred Phelps Sr., and his flock.

Anyway, last week something unusual happened during the spring ’11 College Media Convention in New York City. One of the legal minds in the Phelps family — which is full of lawyers — sat down and took questions from a room packed with young journalists, no holds barred. Before the Q&A session, attorney Margie Phelps was interviewed by a top-flight journalist and researcher, Gene Policinski, the executive director of the First Amendment Center operated by the Freedom Forum. Both of them took the encounter very seriously (click here for a rough, but helpful, video).

I learned all kinds of things from taking notes while biting my lip and listening carefully to this event. But here is the key. For the Westboro Baptist believers, the “you” in all of those “God Hates You” signs they carry is not primarily the family of the dead soldier whose funeral is the location of their media-friendly picketing. No, they insist that the “you” is America, especially America as symbolized by what Phelps & Co. call the pro-America “pep rally” that surrounds them wherever they go.

As Margie Phelps told the young journalists: “We’re not picketing the funeral. We’re picketing the pep rally.”

So why am I sharing this with GetReligion readers? Here’s why.

For almost 23 years, I have kept my Scripps column rooted in a kind of news analysis style, as opposed to a full-on, first-person opinion style. However, it is a column and my point of view is in there and I know that. Still, I rarely take big leaps of logic and ask readers to jump with me.

Maybe I should have done that this week. As I worked with pages of Margie Phelps quotations, I kept hearing another specific voice inside my head. To tune in that voice, please read the end of the column:

To understand Westboro and its beliefs, stressed Margie Phelps, it helps to know that the church’s tactics have evolved during the past two decades and the 45,000 protests it claims to have staged at a variety of public events, including about 800 funerals. For a decade, the central message was that America needed to repent and turn away from sin. But as the death toll kept rising in Iraq, she said Westboro’s leaders concluded that, “It’s too late now. … This nation is doomed.” Above all, they were infuriated when many of the funerals for the fallen turned into patriotic rallies.

“We watched as the politicians, the media, the military, the citizenry and the veterans used the occasion of these soldiers’ deaths to publish a viewpoint,” said Phelps, describing the First Amendment arguments she used before the Supreme Court. “And we said, ‘We don’t agree with your viewpoint. God is not blessing America. It is a curse that that young soldier, the fruit of your nation, is lying in there in that coffin.’ …

“That is not a blessing of God. … The soldiers are dying for your sins.”

The bottom line, concluded Margie Phelps, is that Westboro Baptist simply “joined that public debate” on public sidewalks, while following all existing laws that govern public protests. Now, national outrage about the court decision has strengthened the convictions of the Phelps family.

“These are desperate times, calling for desperate measures and we are going to get these words into your ears,” she said. By focusing on military funerals, the leaders of Westboro Baptist “know that we are hitting three of your biggest idols — the flag, the uniform and the dead bodies. … We are going to finish this work. The Lord God Jehovah has our back.”

Do you hear another voice? Yes, it could be one of these guys — because the theological approach is similar. The formula goes something like this: America takes a certain set of actions, refuses to repent and, thus, calls down the wrath of God.

However, I also heard the voice of someone else who made big headlines three or so years ago by using the same basic theological point, only with a different sin as his theological starting point and framing device. Can you say, “God damn America!”

So, here is my question: How big a leap would it have been to have included the Rev. Jeremiah Wright in this column? After all, this would have meant explaining what he said and why he said it, as well as what I mean when I say that he is using essentially the same theological approach as the Phelps crew. This would have required a big leap by the readers, to follow the thread of that analysis.

Yes, I know that. But does anyone else hear that voice?

Westboro’s winnings

Westboro Baptist Church keeps popping up in GetReligion territory thanks to its ability to capture attention through protests and lawsuits. Of course, the news yesterday that the Supreme Court ruled in the group’s favor is impossible to ignore.

Assuming readers don’t necessarily know what Westboro is, it can be difficult to find a short headline that gets to the point. Here’s what the Los Angeles Times went with: “Supreme Court sides with churchgoers who picketed military funeral.” The descriptor “churchgoers” is about as vague as you can get. Print editions may have space constraints, but editors could consider search engine optimization and come up with clearer headlines online.

Most of the coverage focused on the Supreme Court decision, reporting the majority and minority opinions. Space is limited, but it would be nice if reporters would slip in a sentence or two explaining who Westboro is and what they believe. Barbara Bradley Hagerty gave a “peek” inside Westboro in her round-up for NPR.

The Phelpses and their church are isolated in more ways than one. Few news organizations have profiled them. One exception is Bill Sherman, the religion writer for newspaper Tulsa World. He visited them in their compound in an upscale neighborhood of Topeka. He found them polite, normal people–and a model of success.

“They’re college educated. They’re well-spoken. The daughter herself argued before the United States Supreme Court,” Sherman says. “They’re not what I expected.”

This took me back to Bill Sherman’s Tulsa World piece that explains how the congregation is mostly made up of Phelps’ own family.

Phelps, a Topeka civil rights lawyer during the 1960s through the 1980s, has 13 children. Eleven are lawyers, and nine are directly involved in the church and the ministry. Four of them practice in the law firm that Phelps founded.

Most of his children – as well as 56 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren – live in the compound or within a block or two of it. The school-age children attend public schools, where they make good grades. Most of the adults hold professional jobs. Some of Phelps’ children are estranged from the family and have spoken publicly against it.

The church is fenced and gated, but contrary to some rumors in Topeka, its services are open to the public, family members say.

Phelps still preaches a 45-minute sermon every Sunday to a congregation of about 70, nearly all of them related to him by blood or marriage.

This kind of context gives people a picture that this isn’t like your average church around the corner. Overall, it would be helpful to explain that Westboro is an independent congregation with no ties any Baptist conventions or networks.

When the arguments came before the Supreme Court, Terry noted that the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and 21 news outlets filed friend-of-the-court brief supporting the church’s right to hold protests.

After yesterday’s decision, Poynter promoted Kelly McBride’s column on how to cover hate speech. She drew on earlier ideas when she wrote a planned Quran burning in Florida.

When you give hate speech too much attention, or the wrong kind of attention, you cause more harm than good. Here are some of the common negative affects of hate speech stories that miss the mark:

You alienate your audience and they turn away.
Like rewarding a toddler who throws a tantrum, you encourage the speaker to keep talking.
You embolden others to share their hate speech, so they too can get attention.
You create a climate, both virtual and real, that fosters screaming instead of civil dialogue.
You inadvertently pile harm onto innocent individuals who are the target of the speech.

Many of these points may be true, but they feel a bit too utilitarian when journalists can’t always try to predict the outcome of coverage. A basic question local newspaper editors should ask is, “Is this really news? Westboro protests at lots of funerals, how does this particular one make it different.” Westboro is considered outrageous by many, but it’s unclear is how McBride decides what consists of hate speech and who decides whether it’s worth covering.

We’ve looked at a few slices of the coverage, but feel free to let us know if you have come across particularly good or bad stories.

Why journalists love Westboro Baptist

Actually, the headline on the top of this post should say, “Why so many mainstream journalists are biting their lips and showing reluctant support for the fundamentalists — self proclaimed, fitting Associated Press style — from Westboro Baptist Church.” But that wouldn’t fit very well in our format.

It goes without saying that there is too much coverage of the U.S. Supreme Court sessions about Westboro Baptist (surf this) to deal with in a single GetReligion post, especially one written quickly while I prepare to split town for a speaking gig.

Here is what I can do for you.

Strangely enough, I can point readers once again to an excellent Time piece on the core issues in this case that, sadly, is still not available in its entirety on the magazine’s website. I will continue to watch to see if and when the text is posted.

Ironically, the key element of that article, from my point of view, is its emphasis on secular issues, not religious issues. You cannot understand this case without grasping the fact that the members of the Westboro legal team — once again, a wave of folks related to the Rev. Fred W. Phelps Sr. — have been willing to follow whatever laws local authorities throw at them, in terms of the locations of their protests.

These folks have a modus operandi and they know how to use it. They do legal protests that make a wide variety of people so mad (justifiably so) that they file lawsuits. The church then wins the lawsuits and collects the legal fees. Rinse, wash, blow dry. Repeat.

Phelps and his crew know that they will draw media coverage. For them, that’s the exposure that matters. They get to stand in front of cameras and shout, “God damn America” (as opposed to “God bless America”).

Thus, here is what I want GetReligion readers to do.

Go out in your front yard — literally, or digitally — and grab your local newspaper. Read the Westboro story that you will find there.

Then answer these questions. In addition to telling the story of the grieving family, which is essential, does the report in your local news source tell you (a) that the protests were moved to another location that was not in view of the church at which the funeral was held and that mourners did not need to pass the demonstration? Then, (b) does it note that the grieving father’s only viewing of these hateful, hellish demonstrations took place when he viewed news media reports or read materials posted on the church’s website? Those facts are at the heart of this case, when you are looking at the legal arguments from a secular, legal, even journalistic point of view. This is why so many mainstream news organizations are backing the church.

For my local newspaper, The Baltimore Sun, this is literally a local story, for two reasons. The emphasis is, as it should be, on the family of the U.S. Marine from Maryland. Then there is the scene at the Supreme Court.

While members of Westboro Baptist Church waved a sign outside the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday thanking God for dead soldiers, the nine justices inside tried to define the line at which such public protests become personal attacks during arguments in an emotionally charged case prompted by the picketing of a Maryland Marine’s funeral.

Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder was 20 years old when he was killed in a Humvee accident in Iraq on March 3, 2006. A week later, publicity-seeking members of the fire-and-brimstone Kansas congregation — all strangers to the Snyders — appeared at his family’s Catholic funeral service in Westminster with posters proclaiming sentiments like “God Hates America” and “Semper Fi Fags.” They later posted online a diatribe blaming Snyder’s death on the sins of the country and his divorced parents.

Snyder’s father sued for intentional infliction of emotional distress and initially won, though the multimillion-dollar verdict was overturned on appeal. That series of legal decisions vaulted the Maryland case to the country’s highest court, where it’s testing the boundaries of the First Amendment and putting liberal free-speech advocates in the position of siding with fringe Christians. …

The case put several specific questions before the court — addressing the rights of private versus public figures, whether free speech is more important than freedom of religion and peaceful assembly, and whether a funeral constitutes a captive audience that needs protection from certain communication. But at its heart are issues of intellectual freedom and human decency.

Actually, the church believes that it’s religious freedom is at stake, too. So there are claims of religious liberty on both sides.

The Sun story covers most of the bases that must be covered (although, strangely enough, Pastor Phelps loses “The Rev.” in front of his name somewhere along the way).

Finally, toward the end, readers are offered this description of the actual event at the heart of this case:

Five days after Matthew Snyder was killed, the Phelpses sent out a news release warning his father and the authorities that they planned to picket the Westminster service at the “St. John’s Catholic dog kennel.” The funeral procession was rerouted, a SWAT team brought in, and a team of motorcyclists shielded the funeral-goers from viewing Westboro members.

But Snyder knew they were there, and later saw them on television and read their online diatribe, which the group called an “epic,” against his son.

While it is accurate to note that the “funeral procession was rerouted,” it is also crucial to note that the media-friendly demonstration was moved away from the Catholic church and that the Westboro activists honored that decision by civic officials. The family saw the protesters only in mainstream news reports — a big issue for defenders of freedom of the press.

Thus, there were only two ways to avoid the pain caused by the demonstrators — ban the protests, even on public cites chosen by civic officials, or ban media coverage of the protests. These are high hurdles for any justices who want, literally, to justify the silencing of these very bizarre religious believers.

So, what was in your local news? Did the reports tell you what you needed to know to understand this case? Once again, stick to the journalism issues.

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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