Supreme Court strikes down key argument of same-sex marriage foes

I have two envelopes. The first is labeled, “To an Honest Man Who Argued in Good Faith and Was Truly Afraid.” The second is labeled, “To a Dishonest Man Who Has Been Lying Deliberately and Who Will Say Anything in Pursuit of Power.”

I am not sure if I will need to use the first envelope.

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In an 8-1 decision announced Wednesday the Supreme Court of the United States overwhelmingly struck down a fundamental argument repeatedly made by opponents of same-sex marriage.

The high court’s sweeping decision in the strange case of Snyder v. Phelps can thus be seen as a victory for advocates of legal equality for gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered persons.

At the same time, this decision sweeps away one of the central fears of opponents of such legal equality, and so it can also be seen as good news for the politically conservative religious groups who have been in the vanguard of the fight to ensure that GLBT people not be granted equality under the law. The decision proves that their fears are unfounded.

That reassurance must be seen as good news, right? I mean, if you’ve spent years warning against a coming calamity, and then find out that this calamity isn’t real and isn’t coming and isn’t anything to be afraid of — that’s good news, isn’t it?

The downside to all of this is that the “Phelps” in Snyder v. Phelps is Fred Phelps and his reprehensible clan of Phelpses who, collectively, make up the incestuous Westboro Baptist Church. Better known as the “God Hates Fags” people.

Phelps and his followers/children have, for decades, made it their mission to preach hate. It’s hard to know whether this is a genuine religious belief based, as Phelps claims, on the litany of biblical proof-texts he treasures that proclaim God’s “hatred” for one group or another, or if this is nothing but a cynical con, a variation of a slip-and-fall scam in which Phelps & Co. deliberately provoke violent responses, allowing them to sue and settle and move on to the next mark. I suspect it’s some combination of both.

In any case, Fred Phelps and his followers have spent years shouting odious, vile things at vulnerable people. The Westboro grifters particularly like picketing at funerals where people are in mourning and nerves are raw. They started out with the funerals of AIDS victims, branching out to picket the funeral of Matthew Shepard, the college student beaten to death in Laramie, Wyo., because he was gay. And since then they’ve moved on to any prominent funeral they can think of, hundreds of them — military funerals, funerals for police officers, funerals for the victims of high profile incidents or accidents.

One of those funerals was the 2006 service in Westminster, Md., for Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder. Albert Snyder, the late soldier’s father, sued Phelps and Westboro for damages. That lawsuit became the Supreme Court decision of Snyder v. Phelps handed down yesterday.

Here’s a summary from Robert Barnes of The Washington Post:

The First Amendment protects a fringe church’s anti-gay protests at military funerals, a nearly unanimous Supreme Court ruled Wednesday in a powerful opinion that spoke to the nation’s tolerance for even hateful public speech.

The court’s most liberal and most conservative justices joined in a decision likely to define the term. It writes a new chapter in the court’s findings that freedom of speech is so central to the nation that it protects cruel and unpopular protests — even, in this case, at the moment of a family’s most profound grief.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote that Westboro Baptist Church’s picketing at fallen soldiers’ funerals “is certainly hurtful and its contribution to public discourse may be negligible.” But he said the reaction may not be “punishing the speaker.”

“As a nation we have chosen a different course — to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate,” Roberts said.

The court sided with a group on the outskirts of American life: a tiny family church in Topeka, Kan., that has drawn disdain across the nation for its protests of military funerals and its lewd signs proclaiming God’s hatred. Its message is that military deaths — and virtually any natural disaster — are divine punishment for the country’s tolerance of homosexuality.

The court’s decision was upsetting to the families of soldiers and veterans, but it was also unsurprising. The law here is unambiguous. The First Amendment guarantee of free speech cannot be restrained or limited or qualified just because the speaker is a hateful, vicious bigot and one of the vilest excuses for a human being ever to slither out from under a rock. Fred Phelps is despicable, his views are despicable and his deliberate choice of venue for expressing those views is despicable. But that doesn’t change the law.

This has always been true. The Supreme Court did not make new law in Snyder v. Phelps. The justices simply reaffirmed that the law is the law is the law. The right to free speech cannot be abridged, even for the most pernicious antigay bigot the nation has ever produced. The right to the free exercise of religion cannot be abridged, even for those whose religion is nothing more than an unending stream of hateful, bigoted provocations. The Supreme Court reaffirmed that yesterday, but the very existence and the disgusting “ministry” of Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church have been reaffirming this every day for decades.

And yet — despite the extravagant freedoms that Phelps has enjoyed for decades and despite the extremity of his bigotry and hatefulness — we have for years heard opponents of legal equality for GLBT folks argue that any legal protections for them would result in legal restrictions against us. It’s an odd argument that, again, seems to view rights as a zero-sum power struggle. But whether the subject was the right to same-sex marriage, or legal protection against workplace discrimination, or even legal protection against the violent threats, intimidation and terrorism of hate crimes, these opponents have presented the same argument. Those legal protections for GLBT people, the argument said, would somehow erode the free speech and free exercise rights of religious conservatives. Somehow.

This argument has been the central focus of the National Organization for Marriage’s lobbying effort to bar same-sex couples from marrying. NOM warns of a “Gathering Storm” in which pastors will be dragged from their pulpits and imprisoned for preaching sermons condemning homosexuality as a sin. They suggest that conservative churches will somehow be forced to consecrate same-sex marriages or to hire openly gay Sunday school teachers. I receive regular alarmist e-mail “alerts” from Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council in which he warns that efforts to grant GLBT people the same legal protections enjoyed by everyone else are really a stealth campaign to “silence” Christians, to take away the freedom of speech of the persecuted majority.

Maybe they’re sincere. Maybe Perkins and the folks at NOM and all of these other religious right groups who have for years been arguing that GLBT rights threaten their own are really, truly, honestly afraid this is true. Maybe they were unaware that these fears were unfounded. Maybe they simply did not realize that this whole line of argument was nonsense.

If that’s the case, the Supreme Court’s decision yesterday should settle the matter. Now they know. The highest court in the land has proclaimed that they do not need to be afraid of the thing they have been arguing they are afraid of. No one needs to be afraid of this. Such fear is unfounded and irrational and any arguments based on such fear would be unfounded and irrational.

I say that this Supreme Court decision should settle the matter. It will be interesting to see if it does.

If these groups have been arguing in good faith all along, then they will be gladdened by yesterday’s decision. They will be happy to learn that they need not fear any abridgment of their rights to free speech and the free exercise of religion just because they believe that homosexuality is a sin. They will be joyously and genuinely relieved to see this confirmed, unambiguously, by the highest court in the land. And they will stop making this argument, stop spinning scary scenarios of pastors getting arrested by the Gay Police, stop arguing that legal protections for others must entail a loss of legal protections for them.

But I don’t think they will stop making this argument.

* * * * * * * * *

I have two envelopes. The first is labeled, “To an Honest Man Who Argued in Good Faith and Was Truly Afraid.” The second is labeled, “To a Dishonest Man Who Has Been Lying Deliberately and Who Will Say Anything in Pursuit of Power.”

I am not sure if I will need to use the first envelope.

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  • Lori

    I am doubtful about whether a private business needs to accept every commission offered, or to offer a reason why not (particularly a small private business which is in a field with adequate competition…) If you refrain from saying why you cannot accept, can anyone actually try to force you to go and photograph their wedding?

    This is absolutely true. My ex runs his own small business and periodically someone in his industry will get their undies in a bunch about non-discrimination rules interfering with their FREEDOM and blah, blah, blah.

    G has a very rude hand gesture he makes in response to that. First because he’s not a bigot and second because it’s dumb. Anyone who can’t find a way to turn down a job or not hire an applicant without running afoul of protected class issues is either purposely being an ass (which was the issue with the wedding photographer) or is dumb as a stump.

    I was initially somewhat sympathetic to the photographers plight. I wouldn’t want to be forced to work one of those RTC weddings where they talk more about Jesus than they do about the people getting married and the little woman promises to be a dutiful appendage to her new lord & master. My sympathy evaporated when I read about the fact that she’d deliberately announced her bigotry in order to make a point. She made her point, she paid the price and that’s on her.

  • Ursula L

    Okay, then I am more in tune with this ruling. Any argument that held a funeral to be a public event barely different from, say, a game of hackey sack in the park would be missing the point in a big way.

    It seems different, however, in that they are picketing military funerals. The ceremony includes political ritual (such as the use of flags) and the government sends representatives (honor guards, etc.) to participate. When government action is involved, that makes it a public and political event in the way that a purely private funeral isn’t.

    Add that these are funerals of people who died carrying out governmental policy, and you have a very political and public event. It’s more public than a mere game of hackey sack in the park, as the government is involved at every level, from setting the policies that led to the death to facilitating and participating in the funeral itself.