The grieving father of a dead US soldier has won nearly $11m (€7.6m) damages from a fundamentalist church that pickets military funerals as a campaign against homosexuality.
The Westboro Baptist Church believes the war in Iraq is a punishment for America’s tolerance of homosexuality.
Albert Snyder sued after members demonstrated at the funeral of his son, Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder, who was killed in an accident in Iraq last year.
Church members waved signs reading “Thank God for dead soldiers,” and “Fag troops”, even though l/cpl Snyder was not gay.
The federal jury awarded $2.9m US (€2m) in compensatory damages $6m US (€4.2m) in punitive damages for invasion of privacy and $2m (€1.4m) for causing emotional distress.
However, one of the church’s leaders, Shirley Phelps-Roper, said the members would continue to picket military funerals.
“Absolutely; don’t you understand this was an act in futility?” she said.
Church members routinely protest at funerals of military personnel killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, carrying signs such as “Thank God for dead soldiers” and “God hates fags.”
They claim they are following their religious beliefs and that the funerals are public events and that views are protected by the First Amendment which guarantees, among other things, freedom of religion and speech.
Mr Snyder claimed the protests intruded upon what should have been a private ceremony and ruined his memory of the event.
On NBC’s Today show Mr Snyder said that while his son was fighting for freedom for Iraqis, “my son did not fight for hate speech.
“And that’s basically what it is,” he said of the church’s protest. “Everybody’s under the impression that the First Amendment gives them the right to do anything, say anything any where, any time. And along with the First Amendment also comes responsibility.”
Several states have passed laws regarding funeral protests, and Congress has banned protests at federal cemeteries.
However, the Snyder case in Baltimore is believed to be the first by the family of a dead serviceman.
The church and three of its leaders – Fred Phelps and his two daughters, Phelps-Roper and Rebekah Phelps-Davis, 46 – were found liable for invasion of privacy and intent to inflict emotional distress.
It was unclear whether Mr Snyder will be able to collect the damages.
Defence lawyer Jonathan Katz said the church has about 75 members and is funded by donations.
He said the assets of the church and the three defendants are less than a million dollars.
One of Mr Snyder’s attorneys, Sean Summers, said he would tirelessly seek payment of the award.
“We will chase them forever if it takes that long.”