Scroll To Top
World

Phelps Family's
Legal Battle Raises First Amendment Questions

Phelps Family's
Legal Battle Raises First Amendment Questions

The fiery message of the Westboro Baptist Church has led its followers into a fight for what they say are their First Amendment rights. 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.

The fiery message of the Westboro Baptist Church has led its followers into a fight for what they say are their First Amendment rights.

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.

Phelps-Roper's 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.

Phelps-Roper, 50, 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 in June.

Sarpy County attorney Lee Polikov said when the Westboro followers specifically target grieving families, ''they don't really deserve the protection of freedom of speech, freedom of religion.''

Phelps-Roper's 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 Phelps-Roper.

Nebraska's flag 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.''

Phelps-Roper has 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, Irvine.

''Sometimes you 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.''

Meyer said 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.

Westboro's last 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 cemeteries.

On Wednesday the church was found liable for invasion of privacy and intent to inflict emotional distress. Jurors awarded Snyder $10.9 million.

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)

30 Years of Out100Out / Advocate Magazine - Jonathan Groff & Wayne Brady

From our Sponsors

Most Popular

Latest Stories

Outtraveler Staff