By Michelle Garcia
Originally published on Advocate.com June 02 2010 4:05 PM ET
The attorneys general from Maine and Virginia declined to sign on to an
amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court, filed by AGs from 48 states and the District of Columbia,
condemning the Westboro Baptist Church's protest at a marine's funeral in 2006.
Albert Snyder, father of the late Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, is suing over protests the antigay church staged at his son's funeral, where its members proclaimed that war deaths are God's punishment for tolerance of gay people.
The brief was filed Tuesday, but missing was the backing of the attorneys general from Maine, Janet Mills, and Virginia, Kenneth Cuccinelli. The lawsuit has been filed against Fred Phelps, the notorious leader of the church.
Brian Gottstein, a spokesman for Cuccinelli, issued a statement explaining why Virginia did not join in the Snyder v. Phelps case. While the attorney general finds Phelps's actions "vile and despicable," Gottstein said in a statement, "the consequences of this case had to be looked at beyond what would happen just to Phelps and his followers."
This case could set a precedent that if protesters, "whether political, civil rights, pro-life, or environmental — said something that offended the object of the protest to the point where the person felt damaged, the protesters could be sued." He added that the state already has a statute to order a $2,500 fine those who willfully disrupt a funeral or memorial service to the point of preventing or interfering with the orderly conduct of the event.
"So long as the protesters stay within the letter of the law, the Constitution protects their right to express their views," Gottstein said. "In Virginia, if Phelps or others attempt this repugnant behavior cross the line and violate the law, the attorney general's office stands ready to provide any assistance to local prosecutors to vindicate the law."
Mills, Maine's attorney general, also released a statement, saying that she declined to join the amicus brief because her office shies away from taking sides in civil cases.
"The utterances at issue in the Snyders’ claim for damages were offensive and outrageous," she said in the statement. "But the First Amendment does not allow us to distinguish between polite speech and hateful or outrageous speech."
Mills also made an argument similar Cuccinelli’s, saying that advancing this case could contribute to a slippery slope of carving away at the First Amendment. As with Virginia, Mills cites a state statute that was enacted to punish those who disturb the peace of funeral attendees.
"While some have questioned the patriotism of our office because we declined to join the amicus brief, just the opposite is true," Mills said. "Our families too have fought in battle. They fought for the constitutional rights of all our citizens, including Mr. Snyder and the Phelps [family]."