Supreme Court hearing military funeral protest case - KWWL - Eastern Iowa Breaking News, Weather, Closings

Supreme Court hearing military funeral protest case

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WASHINGTON, D.C. (KWWL) — The US Supreme Court heard a case Wednesday that tests the First Amendment.  The high court's being tasked with deciding whether a church has a right to spread its anti-gay message, even as a family lays their loved one to rest.

As most cases that come to the Supreme Court area, this is a complicated one.  But it is one that has touched off emotion across the country as the court now looks at the legal issues, and just what should be considered free speech.

Outside the court, the scene looked much like Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder's funeral did, members of the Westboro Baptist Church holding signs reading, "Pray for more dead kids," and "Thank God for IED's." 

Inside, it was up to the nine justices to determine whether the protest at the 2006 funeral was free speech, as attorney and church member Margie Phelps argued.

"The rule of law is the mere fact that you take offense at words or have your feelings hurt over words is not enough to shut up the speech," Phelps said.

It must also be determined if those words were intentionally inflicting emotional distress and not protected speech.

"You specifically identify the Snyder family by name , by name by name and not innuendo.  That is targeted harassment," said Sean Summers, attorney for the Snyder family.

"All we wanted to do was bury Matt with dignity and respect," said Albert Snyder, father of Matthew Snyder, who was killed in Iraq.

The Kansas-based church has protested at hundreds of funerals.  Their message is that God is punishing soldiers for the country's tolerance of homosexuals.

A court awarded Cpl. Snyder's family millions, only to be reverse on First Amendment grounds by a higher court. 

So for an hour, the Supreme Court justices asked tough questions to both sides:  What makes a public figure?  Should funerals be treated differently?  And why should the First Amendment protect exploitation of a family's private grief?"

The issue that has drawn such high emotion is now in the hands of the nation's highest court.  In the court room, there was no clear indication of which way any justice would rule.  The court's decision is expected some time early next year.

NBC Reporter: Kristen Dahlgren

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Meanwhile, the Westboro Church is no stranger here in Iowa.   Back in 2005,  members of the church protested outside Blessed Sacrament Church, after a fundraiser was held in Waterloo for Jason Gage, a local man who was murdered because he was homosexual.  Blessed Sacrament leaders formally recognized the anniversary of the Westboro protest during services this past weekend.  And what's happening now on Capital Hill, is a reminder to those here of the controversial messages that the Kansas church spreads.

The signs could be read and the messages heard loud and clear, when the Westboro church picketed outside Blessed Sacrament in Waterloo back in September 2005.

"I guess I found it a very insulting experience.  It's very hard to grasp because it certainly doesn't express to me the teachings of Christ, which are compassion, forgiveness, understanding.  And it seems to me that their message is hatred," said Father Dennis Juhl, pastor of Blessed Sacrament.

Father Juhl says veterans were particularly upset during Westboro's protest because of its history of protesting military funerals.

"We have many freedoms in this country, and the people paying the biggest price for that are our service men and women.  And for these people to be present at their funerals in such a negative, cruel, and hateful way is almost beyond my imagination," Juhl said.

And that's why Westboro's protesting isn't an easy concept to swallow for many.  Whether you like the church's messages or not, Westboro stands firm that these protests are an exercise of its First Amendment free speech.

"There's a saying that the rights for the best of us are only protected if those same rights are given to the worst of us.  If government starts controlling certain speech, then we have no safeguards that government will ever stop curtailing speech and that's one of the real dangers," said Jeff Stein, KWWL political analyst and communications professor at Wartburg College.

Father Juhl told KWWL that he believes the Westboro Church is "morally misguided."  And he just hopes that the group will stop protesting, especially at military funerals, on its own—without the courts having to make that decision for them.

By the way, the Westboro Church is expected to be protesting in eastern Iowa again soon.  UNI is hosting the "Laramie Project" later this month.  That's the play telling the story of the aftermath of the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming.  Shepard was murdered because of his sexual orientation.

KWWL Reporter:  Kera Mashek 

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