Jewish Journal

Supreme Court sides with Westboro Baptist Church in funeral-protest case

by Brad A. Greenberg

March 2, 2011 | 1:11 pm

I’ve been out all morning, so I haven’t had a chance to comment on the big freedom of speech case to come down from the Supreme Court. That would be the one involving protests of military funerals by the terribly misguided folks at Westboro Baptist Church (as Ed Stetzer tweeted: “The only correct part in the name of “Westboro Baptist Church” is that it is in Westboro.”) Here’s the story from the Associated Press:

The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that the First Amendment protects fundamentalist church members who mount anti-gay protests outside military funerals, despite the pain they cause grieving families.

The court voted 8-1 in favor of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan. The decision upheld an appeals court ruling that threw out a $5 million judgment to the father of a dead Marine who sued church members after they picketed his son’s funeral.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the opinion for the court. Justice Samuel Alito dissented.

Roberts said free speech rights in the First Amendment shield the funeral protesters, noting that they obeyed police directions and were 1,000 feet from the church.

“Speech is powerful. It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and — as it did here — inflict great pain. On the facts before us, we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker,” Roberts said. “As a nation we have chosen a different course — to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate.”

This ruling is neither disturbing or surprising. While the Westboro picketers are brazen in their offensiveness, their speech is as protected by the First Amendment as that of Martin Luther King Jr., Mario Savio and Charlie Sheen (“Duh, winning.”). I said as much in October, when the high court heard this case:

Personally, I deplore—actually, I hate—Westboro Baptist’s M.O. and what the group stands for. They call themselves Christians, and I’m not one to judge the heart, but we’re not praying to the same God.

Still, sickening as their tactics are, I feel in my heart and in my head that they have the right to be a bunch of jerks.

The Court today confirmed that, and as NPR reported, no one was surprised.

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Since launching the blog in 2007, I’ve referred to myself as “a God-fearing Christian with devilishly good Jewish looks.” The description, I’d say, is an accurate one,...

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