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Thursday, November 01, 2007                                                                                       View Comments

Westboro Baptists ordered to pay $11 million to family of Marine

Also see Hate on Trial.

A Baltimore federal jury awarded nearly $11 million Wednesday to the father of a Marine killed in Iraq, deciding that the family's privacy had been invaded by a Kansas church whose members waved anti-gay signs at the funeral.

It was the first-ever verdict against Westboro Baptist Church, a fundamentalist Christian group based in Topeka that has protested military funerals across the country with placards bearing shock-value messages such as "Thank God for dead soldiers."

They contend that the deaths are punishment for America's tolerance of homosexuality and of gays in the military.

Relatives of Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder wept and hugged at the jury's announcement, which came a day after closing arguments in the civil trial in federal district court.

"Now I know it's going to be harder for them to do it to anyone else," said Albert Snyder, who mourned at his son's funeral in March 2006 while seven Westboro members waved signs nearby.

The compensatory damage award alone, $2.9 million, was nearly triple the net worth of Westboro and the three members on trial, their attorney said.

Fred W. Phelps Sr., Westboro's founder, vowed to appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, in Richmond, Va.

"It's going to be reversed in five minutes," he said. This case, he added, "will elevate me to something important," as it draws more publicity to his cause.

The jury found the defendants liable for violating the Snyder family's expectation of privacy at the funeral and for intentionally inflicting emotional distress.

Snyder's lawsuit spurred a constitutional debate over how far the First Amendment should extend to protect the most extreme forms of expression.

Some legal experts said the judgment could be a setback for those who believe in broad free-speech protections.

"I think when speech is a matter of public concern it still has to be protected, even when by social standards it is extraordinarily rude and outrageous," said UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh.

University of Maryland law professor Mark Graber said the size of award, which included $8 million in punitive damages, could have a chilling effect on speech.

"This was in a public space," Graber said "While the actions are reprehensible, the First Amendment protects a lot that's reprehensible."<

After the verdict, Phelps and his two daughters named in Snyder's lawsuit said they believed that it was really their religious beliefs that were on trial.

"The goofy jury threw a fit at God," Phelps said.

For years Westboro members have crisscrossed the country, turning somber funerals of soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan into attention-grabbing platforms to criticize homosexuals as immoral and damned. The church's 75-member congregation is composed mainly of Phelps' relatives.

The group also blames disasters, including Hurricane Katrina, the Sept. 11 attacks and AIDS, on what it views as permissive morals in violation of biblical dictates.

Alarmed by Westboro protests, at least 22 states have proposed or enacted laws to limit the rights of protesters at funerals. Only months after Matthew Snyder's death, Maryland passed a law prohibiting targeted picketing within 300 feet of a funeral, burial, memorial service or funeral procession.

The courtroom fight came down to whether Westboro had a legal right to demonstrate at Snyder's funeral or whether the protesters crossed the line because their message impugned the grieving family's reputation and unlawfully invaded the Snyders' privacy.

The Marine's father, a 52-year-old who lives in York, Pa., sued the church and three of its members, founder Phelps and two of his daughters, Rebecca Phelps-Davis and Shirley Phelps-Roper.

For Snyder's claim of invasion of privacy to have succeeded, the jury needed to conclude that the church's actions at the funeral -- and later, in an Internet posting about Matthew Snyder on its Web site -- were "highly offensive to a reasonable person," according to the jury instructions.

Albert Snyder also contended that the church's actions were an intentional infliction of emotional distress. Under the law, to find in favor of Snyder, the five women and four men of the jury needed to find that the church's conduct was "intentional or reckless."

Jury instructions also required that the conduct be "extreme and outrageous," leading to severe emotional distress.

"You must balance the defendants' expression of religious belief with another citizen's right to privacy," U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett instructed jurors Tuesday.

The weeklong trial brought together Snyder and his family and the progeny of Phelps, a retired attorney.

In the courtroom, the Phelps family dressed plainly, its women with long hair and no makeup. In testimony, they stood steadfast to their beliefs and did not apologize for their conduct.

Often overcome by emotion, Albert Snyder sat in shirtsleeves and flanked by his attorneys. When the videos made of the protest at his son's funeral were played for jurors during closing arguments, he wept.

During his testimony last week, Snyder told jurors that he was clinically depressed and that the sight of the protest at the funeral made him physically ill.

Fred Phelps took the stand after Snyder, testifying that he had not considered whether children would see a sign carried by protesters with the words "Semper Fi Fags" and two stick figures that appeared to be engaged in sodomy, according to the Associated Press.

Three adults and four children picketed the March 10, 2006, funeral at St. John Roman Catholic Church in Westminster. Westboro members insisted that their demonstration, about 1,000 feet from the Catholic church, took place legally.

In closing arguments, the attorneys sparred over the nature of the protest and whether the demonstrators' "speech" is protected by the Constitution.

Sean E. Summers, one of Snyder's attorneys, said Westboro members personally targeted the family because they brought Marine-specific signs to their rally at the funeral and had researched and posted Albert Snyder's marital history on their Web site in an essay titled "The Burden of Lance. Cpl. Matthew Snyder."

But Westboro attorney Jonathan Katz argued that the protest was no different from thousands of others. Nothing about the demonstration was so offensive or damaging, he said, as to rise to the level of a libelous attack on the family, individually.

Protests by Westboro have produced so much negative reaction that members routinely tell local police departments of their plans so that they can provide added security.

The defendants staged a protest on Pratt Street near the federal courthouse at noontime Wednesday, before the verdict was announced.

Counter protests often follow, and groups such as the Patriot Guard have cropped up to try to shield families from Westboro members' controversial signs and songs.

What sometimes took a back seat in the federal free-speech trial was the life and death of Matthew A. Snyder, a 2003 graduate of Westminster High School. A victim of a vehicle accident in Anbar province in March 2006, the 20-year-old had been in the war zone for less than a month.

Snyder's sexual preference was not an issue at the trial; his father said his son was not gay. Church members said they did not target Snyder's funeral because of his sexual preference; they were there to oppose gays in the military.

They said they waved placards -- "Thank God for IEDs" and "Fag Troops" among others -- near the funeral motorcade to bring attention to their message.

Snyder testified that he never saw the content of the signs as he entered and left St. John's on the day of his son's funeral. He read the signs for the first time during television news reports later that day.

A Google search on the Internet weeks later led him to the church's Web site and the posting about Matthew Snyder.

In arguing for punitive damages after the jury ruled in favor of Snyder, attorney Craig T. Trebilcock urged jurors to "deter [Westboro] from ever doing this to another family again."

"These are malicious people," he said. "These are stone-hearted people. They were celebrants of Matt Snyder's death."

Katz, the defendants' attorney, urged jurors to "look dispassionately" at Westboro's financial status in awarding punitive damages.

He said Fred Phelps is an unpaid pastor, Rebecca Phelps-Davis is a low-paid attorney at the Phelps law firm and that Shirley Phelps- Roper is a part-time law firm employee and mother of 11 children.

As for the church, Katz said, its only income is generated by meager tithings from congregants, many of whom are children or unemployed.

Trebilcock told jurors that they did not have to believe the Phelpses' financial disclosures -- pointing out that Rebecca Phelps- Davis reported just $306 in liquid assets.

Earlier in the trial, the Phelpses testified that they spent $400 apiece on plane tickets to get to Snyder's funeral. And Shirley Phelps-Roper eagerly showed off her iPhone to reporters, which she said was a birthday gift from her children.

Summers, an attorney for Snyder, said after the verdict that the lawsuit was not about money, it was about stopping Westboro.

Summers said he was ready and waiting for the appeal. "We will chase them until they have nothing left."

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