Monday, April 5, 2010

"We are Obedient to the Laws of God"

Back in 2006, Lance CPL Matthew Snyder died while serving in Iraq. Like most, a funeral was held in his honor; but unlike most, his service was attended by members of the Westboro Baptist Church. The Westboro Baptist Church is known to hold protests at the funerals of fallen soldiers to promote a religious belief that these particular deaths were God's punishments inflicted on the country for its tolerance of such things like homosexuality. In response to this, Albert Snyder, Matthew's father, filed suit and won. According to this article, Albert was awarded $5 million for the invasion of his privacy and for distress. However in September of last year, the Fourth US Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the decision. In addition, on March 26th the court issued notice to Albert that he was to be responsible for reimbursing $16,500 in court costs to the Westboro Baptist Church.

Since this time, Albert Snyder has appealed to the Supreme Court, which has agreed to hear the case. In the mean time, Albert has received a lot of attention from the media not only concerning the case but specifically in regards to the $16,500 bill he received for the legal fees. He has received attention from sources such as CNN, MSNBC and FOX, even the infamous/famous Bill O'Reilly has offered to pick up the $16,500 tab.

It seems as though there could be multiple ways to look at this case. In the lower courts, the judge decided to take into account personal privacy and distress. Because I do not have the case to critique, I am left only to speculate from this particular article. With that said, if we are to account for personal privacy that means the judge must have seen the confines of the cemetery to be outside of the public realm. The Westboro Baptist Church members stayed their protest just outside the funeral; however it seems that the judge determined Albert's privacy was infringed upon and that the outside area of the funeral was a part of that.

Now the Circuit Court reversed the decision on the grounds of First Amendment rights. To me, this decision would seem to mean that the judge must have felt that Westboro had free exercise rights to be where they were and to protest according to their religious opinion.

Taking these speculations into consideration, I think it is important to take precedence into consideration. The precedence I would like to focus upon occurred during the 1940's during which time the Jehovah's Witnesses faced much persecution. The Witnesses were renounced during this time for their very opinionated proselyting. Thus they ended up in court and went through a series of cases that ultimately changed the landscape for legal precedence concerning the freedoms of religion, speech and the press. Cantwell v. Connecticut is such as case which dealt with unlicensed soliciting for charitable funds. The Supreme Court unanimously agreed such license of solicitation was an infringement not only on free exercise but also the 14th Amendment and the freedom of speech. Looking at the details of this case, one could use its deliberation as precedence for the Westboro Baptist Church.

On the other side of the argument looking to the same time period and even the same type of cases that dealt with the First and Fourteenth Amendments for precedence, one could look to Cox v. New Hampshire. In this case, the court ultimately upheld the convictions in which Jehovah's Witnesses were conducting public parades. The court concluded that even though free speech was protected, the state can place restrictions such as on time and place for public safety. In relation, one could argue that the funeral being held in a public place, such as the graveyard, could be seen as a time and place allowable to restrict such public protest performed by the Westboro Baptist Church.

The cases I have offered are not limited nor are they the best to represent the focused case, but I believe they do show the complication of this case. I do not believe the case can or should rest solely on invasion of privacy or exercise rights but rather taking into consideration, as the Cox case did, the time and place issue. I perhaps could be biased in my thoughts concerning the case; however I cannot help but think that a funeral of sorts is not the place or time for protests concerning gays in the military. Thus if I had to conclude, I think the Court of Appeals was wrong in their decision.


Jessica B said...

This post reminds me of the article I wrote my first post on regarding politicians making religiously discriminatory comments. At first I argued that I believed these comments were unconstitutional but after discussion I realized there is a strong distinction between an action being unconstitutional and just inappropriate and offensive. Although the Westboro Baptist Church's appearance at the funeral is, in my opinion, blatantly rude it is not illegal. This group also protested outside of the funeral of Matthew Shepard, a homosexual teen whom was brutally murdered for his sexual orientation. His family also brought the Church to court in which the judge ruled any sort of religious message could be displayed on city property. The guarantee of free speech comes with the good and the bad. The only way to protect against discriminatory protesting is to fight back with one's own right of free speech and attempt to block out words of hate.

Claire said...

This is a difficult case because it involves not only religious or economic concerns, but the incredibly personal matter of death in the family. While the case may seem easily decided based on precedence, it is hard to ignore the fact that a person’s funeral was interrupted by a religious group protesting his choices in life. It seems to me that even if a graveyard is not generally considered personal property that it must be considered personal property during a funeral. Additionally, I have no doubt that the protest caused distress to the soldier’s family.

Lauren P said...

I agree with Jessica in that although the protest by the Westboro Baptist Church at the Snyder family's funeral for their son was inappropriate and offensive, it is not necessarily unconstitutional. Freedom of speech has its pros and cons, but we live in a nation where speech is a protected right thus we must take the bad with the good. Time and place may certainly come into play in various cases, but I do not think that these situational issues hold as much weight in a case like this. Unfortunately for the Snyder family, I think that the Supreme Court ruled correctly in favor of Westboro.

LaurenL said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
LaurenL said...

I agree with Claire in the fact that even though graveyards are not considered personal property, at the time of one's funeral, they should be deemed personal. Matthew Snyder was actually my friend's cousin, and I remember him telling me a few years ago that members of the Westboro Baptist Church had come to the funeral and picketed outside and how obnoxious, rude, and distasteful it was.
Regardless of whether or not there is precedence for this case, I think the fact that Westboro targets American soldiers is hugely important. These men and women are signing up - devoting a huge part of their lives - to defend our country, our freedoms, our rights. And many of these soldiers die during that what about their rights? They're out there sacrificing themselves and dying for the United States of America, and our government can't even grant them and their families the dignity of a peaceful, private funeral? It's absurd, and I think it's absolutely disgusting that the Westboro Baptist Church gets its notoriety from picketing at fallen soldiers' funerals.