Left: Margie M. Phelps, left, stands with her husband Fred Phelps and her daughter Margie J. Phelps during a demonstration outside the federal courthouse in Baltimore on Oct. 31, 2007. Right: On the steps of the courthouse in Baltimore, Albert Snyder talks with reporters after members of the Westboro Church were ordered to pay nearly $11 million in damages. (The Associated Press)
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It was four years ago in March that the funeral of Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder was marred by seven protesters, who stood outside the packed church service in Westminster, Md., holding signs with divisive, angry messages.
"Thank God for Dead Soldiers," one read. "Semper Fi Fags," said another. "Thank God for IEDs," read a third, referring to the improvised explosive devices that have killed thousands of service members in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001.
The protesters, members of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., infuriated many of the 1,200 people attending the funeral at St. John Catholic Church, causing some to scream at them from their cars and others to make obscene gestures, said Snyder's father, Albert. The Westboro group's core message: God kills U.S. service members because of the country's tolerance for homosexuality.
Wednesday, the likely final act of the resulting legal battle will begin playing out in Washington before the nation's highest court.
More on Westboro:
• http://www.marinecorpstimes.com/news/2010/04/marine_scotus_040510w/">Snyder-Phelps fight has many twists, turns (April 5, 2010)
• http://www.marinecorpstimes.com/news/2010/04/ap_donations_snyder_westboro_040110/">Donations pour in for father of fallen Marine (April 1, 2010)
Al Snyder and his small team of lawyers will argue before the U.S. Supreme Court that the church, which has protested at hundreds of military funerals, maliciously violated Snyder's right to mourn his son's death. The church, led by patriarch Fred Phelps, will likely counter that its members stood a required 1,000 feet away from the service on a public street, preaching on public issues that made their angry message protected speech.
"They're really just sick people," Snyder told Marine Corps Times in an interview this year. "They came to my church. I didn't go to theirs. They came from Kansas with a specific purpose, and that was to get their message out. And they didn't care who it hurt."
The Phelps family has countered that it is their duty to preach to "doomed America." They remain antagonistic toward Snyder, most Americans and the U.S. military. In an interview this year, Shirley Phelps-Roper, a lawyer and one of the seven picketing outside Snyder's funeral, said "military brutes" will cower when God destroys the world.
"It ain't going to be about the bad-ass Marine because first, they're not badass. They think they're bad-ass," she said. "If they're so bad-ass, how come they keep getting killed?"
In the balance stand millions of dollars that Snyder initially won in a lawsuit against the church in October 2007 — and more importantly to many military families, the potential future of protests outside military funerals, a practice that is despised by many Americans.
Snyder was initially awarded $10.9 million in damages by a federal jury in Baltimore, enough to effectively bankrupt the 70-member church. The church immediately appealed the decision. In February 2008, a federal judge in Baltimore reduced the damages to $5 million, and a three-judge panel with the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., overturned the original decision, saying that while the Phelpses' speech was "repugnant," it was protected as free speech under the First Amendment.
Westboro church officials already have promised to protest Wednesday outside Supreme Court and at Arlington National Cemetery. They also protested outside Arlington on Tuesday, according to media reports, and promised to visit the White House, a Senate building and a high school in Hagerstown, Md., a Washington suburb within the day.
The court's decision isn't expected to be announced until the spring.