Today the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) released its decision in Snyder vs. Phelps. The case featured the father of a fallen Marine (Snyder) who claimed distress when members of the Westboro Baptist Church (Phelps) held a protest rally of sorts at the funeral of his son. WBC holds signs that say “God hates f*gs” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers”. Snyder asserted that their presence at the funeral caused emotional damage to him.
I have no doubt that it did. I have NO doubt that it did. Even if he barely noticed them on the day, but saw the footage later, I’m sure it only enflamed his grief and pain. I do think what Westboro does is morally wrong. It’s not considerate of others, it does not spread the love of Christ, it does not bring people into a deeper understanding of the grace of God (except inasmuch as God does not smite them, in my opinion).
However, what they do is not illegal. That’s the hard part, but that is the side on which the Supreme Court came down today.
The New York Times summarized the majority ruling, written by Justice John Roberts:
Chief Justice Roberts wrote that two primary factors required a ruling in favor of the church. First, he said, its speech was on matters of public concern. While the messages on the signs carried by its members “may fall short of refined social or political commentary,” he wrote, “the issues they highlight — the political and moral conduct of the United States and its citizens, the fate of our nation, homosexuality in the military and scandals involving the Catholic clergy — are matters of public import.”
Second, the members of the church “had the right to be where they were.” They were picketing on a public street 1,000 feet from the site of the funeral; they complied with the law and with instructions from the police, and they protested quietly and without violence.
“Any distress occasioned by Westboro’s picketing turned on the content and viewpoint of the message conveyed,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote, “rather than any interference with the funeral itself.”
All of that means, the chief justice wrote, that the protesters’ speech “cannot be restricted simply because it is upsetting or arouses contempt.”
This is a hard thing to swallow for many, many people. Angered and hurt by Westboro’s actions, people wonder if the law cannot do anything about them, who can? Many states have created buffer zones around funerals to attempt to prevent distress to families- a distance at which the protestors must stand. However, the people of the WBC were compliant with those rules in Maryland where the funeral took place.
There was a bit of a hubbub following the shootings in Arizona of a few weeks ago, in which there were rumors of the WBC protestors coming to the funerals of some of the victims. People in Tucson joined together and some planned to where outsized angel wings to block the views of the grieving families. WBC never showed.
I loathe what WBC does with the fire of a thousand suns. I hate that their behavior is extrapolated to churches in general. I detest that they prey upon situations of grief and distress. I thoroughly dislike the cultish nature of the church and completely disagree with their Scriptural interpretation.
But the First Amendment protects them. And I want it to, because I want it to protect me. If the SCOTUS begins to clamp down on the First Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens, even though their words hurt, then you or I or organizations we support could be next. We cannot allow our freedoms to be restricted because some people can’t handle them.
Roberts argues that Westboro’s signs bring up issues of public importance. That’s not the point. They could be carrying signs that “Jelly beans are better than spice drops” or “Down with Polyester Cruelty” or “Peace Now”. We would think they were amusing at best or kooks at worst, as long as they remained within the law.
Instead, they take advantage of media coverage and the gathering of people to spread inflammatory messages, but they’re not illegal.
If we stop them, we’re all in danger.
If we ignore them, they won’t go away.
If we try to reason with them, they will say that they KNOW they’re right.
So, instead, we must use our freedoms in the same way that they’re using theirs. People can gather to block the views of families. People can hold counter-protest signs. Choirs can gather and sing over their ranting.
Goodness is stronger than evil, but we don’t ask SCOTUS to uphold goodness. We ask them to uphold freedoms and so they have.
It’s up to the rest of us to exercise our freedoms with as much vigor as do those whose message we believe is wrong.