Left: Fred Phelps, center, stands with his wife Margie M. Phelps, right, and 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 Baptist Church were ordered to pay nearly $11 million in damages. The Supreme Court overturned the decision in 2011. (The Associated Press)
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Countless military families have been tormented by the Westboro Baptist Church, which pickets service members’ funerals as part of its campaign against gays and lesbians. Now church founder Fred Phelps Sr. is reportedly near death and in hospice care.
The father of a fallen Marine whose son’s funeral was targeted by the Westboro Baptist Church hopes Phelps is afforded more respect than church members showed his son. “I believe he has the same rights as everybody else should have, that he should be buried in peace,” Al Snyder told Military Times on Tuesday. “Two wrongs don’t make a right.”
Al Snyder sued Westboro Baptist after its members picketed the funeral of his son, Lance Cpl. Matt Snyder, who was killed in Iraq on March 3, 2006. Snyder did not see the protest during the service, but afterward he saw television coverage of church members holding signs that “God hates you,” “You’re in hell,” and “Semper Fi fags.”
The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled in the church’s favor in 2011, deciding the protest had been held peacefully in a public place and the issues the church raised were a matter of public concern.
“Simply put, the church members had a right to be where they were,” according to the majority opinion. “Westboro alerted local authorities to its funeral protest and fully complied with guidance on where picketing could be staged. The picketing was conducted under police supervision some 1,000 feet from the church, out of the sight of any of those at the church. The protest was not unruly; there was no shouting, profanity or violence.”
Since the ruling, Phelps has been excommunicated by the church and is being treated at a Kansas hospice for health problems, according to the Topeka Capital-Journal. A spokesman for the church could not be reached by phone or email on Tuesday.
Even though the Westboro Baptist Church protested his son’s funeral, Snyder won’t lash out at Phelps during his last days.
“I do not like Westboro Baptist Church; I don’t have anything nice to say about them, but if I had anything bad to say about them at this time — or if he dies — it would put me in the same category as him, and I don’t want to be in that category,” he said. “I don’t like hate.”
It’s a sentiment shared by his former attorney, Craig Trebilcock, an Army Reserve officer who represented Snyder in his case against the Westboro Baptist Church.
“I think the best revenge for people is to show Pastor Phelps and his family the mercy and compassion that they’ve denied to everyone else and I’d encourage to pray for him,” said Trebilcock, now a judge in York County, Pa.
Trebilcock advises people that the Westboro Baptist Church thrives on media coverage. Any demonstration now would just give the church more publicity.
“If somebody feels the need to get back at the Phelps group, support the wounded warrior groups,” he said. “That’s one reason why I and attorney [Sean] Summers, we took up the case in the first place. We’re both Army reservists. It wasn’t out of any hatred to the Phelps clan or the Westboro Baptist Church. We just wanted to take care of the families of people who went over and paid the ultimate sacrifice.”