The fiery message
of the Westboro Baptist Church has led its followers
into a fight for what they say are their First Amendment
After what would
appear at first glance to be a setback in one court, the
group heads to another one on charges that include flag
mutilation -- and members of the Topeka, Kan.-based
church could not be happier.
''Our message has
exploded all over the world,'' a delighted Shirley
Phelps-Roper said Thursday.
comments came a day after the fundamentalist church was
ordered in Maryland to pay nearly $11 million to a grieving
father whose son's military funeral was the target of
the congregation's frequent picketing campaigns.
The church, led
by Phelps-Roper's father, the Reverend Fred
Phelps, believes that U.S. deaths in the Iraq war are
punishment for the nation's tolerance of
homosexuality. The protesters carry signs bearing such
slogans as ''Thank God for dead soldiers'' and ''God hates
fags.'' Followers say they are entitled to protest at
soldiers' funerals under the First Amendment, which
guarantees freedom of speech and religion.
is to appear in Sarpy County, Neb., court on
Monday on charges of flag mutilation, negligent child abuse,
contributing to the delinquency of a minor, and
disturbing the peace. The charges were filed after
Phelps-Roper allowed her 10-year-old son to stand on the
flag while protesting at a Bellevue soldier's funeral
attorney Lee Polikov said when the Westboro followers
specifically target grieving families, ''they don't really
deserve the protection of freedom of speech, freedom
attorney, Bassel El-Kasaby, said he has asked that the
case be thrown out because the charges are unconstitutional.
El-Kasaby was hired by the Nebraska ACLU to represent
law defines flag mutilation as when a ''person
intentionally casts contempt or ridicule upon a flag by
mutilating, defacing, defiling, burning, or trampling
upon such flag.''
noted that the U.S. Supreme Court has struck down laws
forbidding flag desecration.
Westboro has been
effective in getting its name and message out, but most
people will not be able to make a logical connection between
homosexuality and soldiers' deaths, said David Meyer, a
sociology professor at the University of California,
actually want to provoke a fury, because the action of
protest is meant to be polarizing,'' he said. ''But you hope
when you do that more people break on your side than
the other side.''
protesters are typically effective in encouraging social
change when they fight against something generally accepted
as being wrong -- as happened with the Civil Rights
and antidraft movements -- or when protesters can make
a connection to something wrong, such as antiabortion
protesters likening abortion doctors to murderers.
legal fight occurred in U.S. district court in Maryland,
where Albert Snyder sued the church after a protest last
year at the funeral of his son, a marine who was
killed in Iraq. He claimed the protests intruded on
what should have been a private ceremony and sullied
his memory of the event.
Nebraska and at
least 37 other states have adopted laws restricting how
close protesters can get to funerals. The laws were at least
partly inspired by Westboro's protests. Congress has
passed a law prohibiting such protests at federal
On Wednesday the
church was found liable for invasion of privacy and
intent to inflict emotional distress. Jurors awarded Snyder
Ronald Collins, a
scholar at the First Amendment Center, said that while
he finds the church's message reprehensible, it is protected
by the Constitution. He expects the judgment to be
thrown out on appeal.
''You don't get
around the First Amendment by issuing an $10.9 million
verdict,'' Collins said. (Timberly Ross, AP)