Trial against Phelps’ anti-gay group gets go-ahead

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A Baltimore judge has restricted the scope of a lawsuit brought by the father of a Marine whose funeral was targeted by Fred Phelps’ anti-gay group.

It is the first individual lawsuit brought against Fred Phelps’ Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) for its protests at military funeral ceremonies

The law suit will go to trial next week in Baltimore.

Albert Snyder claims that protesters from the Kansas-based anti-gay group destroyed his only chance to bury in peace the son he lost in Iraq. He filed a complaint in June 2006.

The picketers, who had carried signs with messages such as “Thank God for dead soldiers,” have said that they were trying to oppose gays in the military.

The Baltimore Sun reported that after the two sides presented legal arguments in a Baltimore courtroom on Monday, a federal judge offered a split decision, ruling that a more limited can proceed to trial next week.

At times incensed over what he described as long-winded theological speeches given by a member of the Westboro Baptist Church, U.S. District Judge Richard Bennett nonetheless dismissed two of the five counts against the church and three of its leaders, saying in part that their statements, no matter how incendiary, amounted to protected speech.

Comments posted on the church’s Web site that Snyder raised his son “for the devil” and taught his son how to “defy his Creator, to divorce and to commit adultery” did not defame the father because it was “not the kind of information that a reasonable person is going to assume was presented to be considered fact,” Bennett said.

In granting part of the defendants’ motion for summary judgment, Bennett found church members did not defame Lance Cpl. Matthew A. Snyder or his family by implying that he was gay or raised by adulterers because his parents divorced.

Nor did the church members invade the family’s privacy, the judge ruled, because their anti-gay and anti-divorce accusations were based on a general expression of the church members’ fundamentalist beliefs.

At the civil trial set to begin Monday in federal court, the jury will be able to consider whether Westboro Baptist Church is liable for an intentional infliction of emotional distress based on the message from its members’ signs, Bennett said.

The judge also will allow jurors to decide whether the Snyder family’s expectation of privacy at Matthew Snyder’s funeral was violated by the church members’ protest outside St. John Roman Catholic Church in Westminster.

Shirley Phelps-Roper, daughter of Fred Phelps who established Westboro in 1955, said in court yesterday that the church members did not target the Snyder family personally.

Westboro Baptist — which has about 75 members, the vast majority of whom are relatives — protests at funerals using anti-gay slurs but without regard to the presumed sexual orientation of the soldier, church members have said.

Three adults and four children marched outside Snyder’s funeral in March 2006, waving placards expressing their belief that the military’s combat losses is a direct result of immoral behavior, including homosexuality, among its ranks.

First Amendment experts have said these types of lawsuits often founder because even the most hateful speech is usually protected.

In April 2007 the Governor of Kansas signed into law a bill aimed at stopping WBC from protesting at the funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq.

Kansas joined 16 other states in introducing local legislation to bar the hate group’s activities.

“It’s disgraceful for anyone to try and disrupt a funeral,” said Governor Kathleen Sebelius.

“It is unfortunate this reprehensible practice has been exported to other states.”

They are banned from coming within 150 feet of a funeral one hour before, during or two hours after the end of the service. Violators would face up to a $1,000 fine and six months in jail.

It also makes it illegal to obstruct any public street or sidewalk and allows family members to sue if they feel protesters defamed the deceased, reports

The church was the subject of a BBC2 documentary by Louis Theroux broadcast earlier this month.

On April 2nd a spokesman for the Swedish royal family confirmed that Westboro Baptist church leader Rev Fred Phelps has been faxing hate messages to them.

It is thought that Rev Phelps has taken against Sweden after an outspoken minister, Åke Green, was convicted of inciting hatred of gay people following a homophobic sermon.

“You’re doomed to spend eternity in hell,” Phelps is alleged to have said in one of the fax messages.

“All you Swedes and your Swedish king and his family.”