US Hate Church Tests Limits of Free Speech
By Washington correspondent Kim Landers, staff
The United States Supreme Court is testing whether the right to free speech protects a religious group that pickets the funerals of American soldiers.
The Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas says US military deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan are punishment for the immorality of Americans, including tolerance of homosexuality.
Members of the church hammer home their message by protesting at the funerals of American soldiers, carrying banners with slogans like "Thank God for dead soldiers", "God hates your feelings", "Fags doom nations" and "Pray for more dead kids".
Members of the church carried the same signs as they protested on the steps of the US Supreme Court overnight.
Inside, the court was hearing an emotional case between the father of a US Marine killed in Iraq and the church, whose members picketed his son's funeral four years ago.
Margie Phelps, the daughter of church leader Reverend Fred Phelps, said that even if some people find the church's actions distasteful and repugnant, freedom of expression is protected under the First Amendment.
"There's no line that can be drawn here without shutting down a lot of speech," she told the court.
But Albert Snyder said the church took away his one chance to bury his son Matthew in peace.
"Speaking as a father, the Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church conduct was so extreme it went beyond all possible bounds of basic human decency ... it can be regarded as utterly intolerable in a civilised nation," he said.
"I hope that they realise that isn't just a case about speech," Albert Snyder's lawyer Sean Summers said.
"It's about harassment, targeted harassment at a private person's funeral."
Ms Phelps argues that America's war deaths are divine punishment because the US tolerates homosexuals.
"God is cursing America - it is a curse for your young men and women to be coming home in body bags," she said.
"If you want that to stop, stop sinning."
Albert Snyder sued the church for causing mental suffering and was awarded $11 million by a jury, a figure that a judge then reduced to $5 million.
An appeals court then scrapped the compensation altogether, ruling that while the church's actions were "distasteful and repugnant," they fell under First Amendment protections.
During the legal argument, Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said the question was whether the First Amendment must tolerate "exploiting this bereaved family".
The court's decision will not be announced for months.
Whatever the outcome, the church members are vowing not to change their ways.
"Experiments are the only means of knowledge at our disposal. The rest is poetry, imagination." Max Planck