To Sue or Not to Sue: Supreme Court Debates Family’s Right to Sue Funeral Protestors

The family of Mathew Snyder filed an 11million dollar lawsuit after protesters from the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka Kansas held signs condemning gays and abortion while shouting and singing songs that those same activities and other sins were why Americans were dying, that if Americans wanted to stop dying they needed to stop sinning. In addition to picketing Lance Corporal Snyder’s funeral they have also marched on Washington and staged similar protest at Arlington National cemetery. Snyder’s father originally won his federal court case and was awarded the sum named above by a jury citing invasion of privacy and intentional emotional distress; however, the U.S. Court of Appeals overturned the verdict then ordered the Snyder family to pay nearly $17,000 in court costs for the church. The case is currently being heard by the Supreme Court where justices are divided; Justice Sotomayor wondering in a quote how we would limit free speech in a public venue, while Justice Ginsburg wondered why the first amendment should tolerate hate for them to get attention or why they should be allowed to exploit a family’s grief when there are so many other ways to get their message across.

Members of the church actively protesting asked a series of questions to one reporter trying to get an understanding of what these people are all about, what motivates them; they included, what people have we persuaded, what taps have we silenced, what funerals have we prevented among other things, going on to say they were not afraid. When the reporter reminded them they were not afraid is because of the freedoms soldiers fought and died for the leader laughed and the occupants of the car everyone was seated in began singing a song about who was going to hell. Additional footage showed the leader seemed to be almost mocking the law, when the reporter brought up the emotional distress claim, saying something along the lines of let me give you a colloquial interpretation of that you hurt my feelings (the word drawn out derogatorily) and no you don’t get 11 million dollars for that. A display of surprising ignorance of the law thinking the family not the jury came up with the final award number.

Yet if what the leader said were entirely true emotional distress would have no legal ground and it does; lawyers representing the church take issue with the fact that Snyder’s father did not see the protesters at the funeral and only decided to sue after seeing the group on television. But that may even be more to Mr. Snyder’s point because then it ceased to be about burying what many consider a fallen hero, ceased to be about laying a family member to rest and became about the message, the agenda of the protest group. And as another justice on the Supreme Court commented, though the protesters stood where told and obeyed the law it does not make them immune to civil action; likewise, even though it was considered a public funeral, including a precession, it was still a funeral, something meant to honor the dead, give the family closure. Just because the funeral was not private doesn’t mean all forms of decorum should be abandoned. There is also something to be said for, if we let this protest stand unchallenged, what will we have to deal with down the road at formerly revered ceremonies like this; will funerals for soldiers begin to see the same violence as abortion clinics? Previously we have never had to legislate decency on such a basic level; sadly it seems there is a first time for everything.

Further one has to question the wisdom not only of the group’s actions at protests but also where they choose to protest, the family they chose to verbally accost. There is no indication that Mathew Snyder was gay; being male he could not actively have an abortion himself and there is no public evidence to suggest that he forced or advised a girlfriend, fiancè, wife, sexual partner to have one, or paid for them to have one. In fact it seems Snyder’s only sin, according to the group’s beliefs, is that he served in what one of them called “a fag” military, meaning one that allowed homosexuals, as if he had any control over whom they let serve in said military, as if him using the only forceful vehicle to go make a difference, go give to others, go defend his country was wrong. Similarly with Arlington national cemetery, there are many soldiers buried there some of whom no doubt thought homosexuality and abortion where wrong, some who probably didn’t agree with the wars they ended up fighting in, certainly not everything that went on, so why make it a target with such diversity present? Neither was this the funeral of a dictator, politician or equivalent well known, infamous figure where ordinary people, victims of abuses or injustices would be seeking closure for themselves; point being, the protesters were sorely out of place for what they wanted to achieve.

If these people really wished to hammer home there message in exactly this way, they should be protesting at the funerals of gay service members, service members who have had abortions, been complicit in their partners doing so or engaged in other “sins” believed to have been committed. Perhaps the reason they do not is because, were they to do such a thing, said activists could find themselves staring down charges related to hate crime legislation. Returning to the questions the leader posed to the news reporter about what they had not done as far as imposing persuasion, managing to silence anyone or stopping a funeral. An alternative way to look at that is their demonstrations have been a complete failure when put up against their obvious goals and still they continue. While what they have managed to do without a doubt is antagonize a grieving family, seemingly to get on the news, to get their voices heard, rather than being content to protest in a public place not so sensitive in nature, then mock the emotional distress claim after the fashion of a schoolyard bully. There is such a thing as harassment according to the law and it is illegal; clearly a jury agreed to an extent to award them anything at all, rather than bash them as the protesters did or dismiss them as grieving and therefore lashing out but not entitled to a monetary judgment.

Realistically Americans are dying over there to give the freedoms we take for granted to other people and to prevent terrorists hell bent on the destruction of America along with the proliferation of Islam, from succeeding at least in their former ambition. As Christians this group cannot be overly enthused about a different religion, a false religion in their eyes, gaining more and more people, especially one with large numbers reveling in violence; another fact, many in the evangelical Christian community not only supported president Bush’s invasion of Iraq but saw it as a Godly pursuit, the son finishing what the father did not in the first gulf war, completing what God intended years before. Afghanistan has been looked at in much the same way by evangelicals a necessity in keeping America and its way of life intact, going after the people who have, in essence, declared war on us with things like 9-11 and the numerous failed plots leveled against this country.

No all soldiers are not heroes, no all do not act honorably, especially in places where they are the symbols of law and order; however, again, there is no indication that Mathew Snyder engaged in any dishonorable behavior while serving in the military or during the tour of duty in which he eventually died. Considering recent events the protest group would be better off protesting outside whatever prison or military facility that is currently holding soldiers accused of killing Afghan civilians for fun in fear of a commanding officer seemingly gone crazy or protesting others being held for similar behavior. Protest the officials who allow such actions to go unchecked, who don’t have procedures in place to deal with these kinds of atrocities, protest the obvious lack of supervision of soldiers, missed psychological symptoms that should have classified them unfit to serve in uniform, bash a system that encourages young people to sign up and serve for the college incentives they will get when their tours are over, but don’t bash a dead young man who served his country with dignity and honor. Because if we do that the only ones we will have left are the ones breaking all the rules and giving the nation a bad name.

Truth be told the case should not have to be put before the Supreme Court; the federal judge should have advised the Snyder family to bring their case to civil court; if it was already in a civil court, conflicting reports make it somewhat unclear, then they should be awarded the judgment stated by the jury, with the church having all the normal appeals available to them, end of story. Odds are they won’t have to pay a dime during the years appeals are conducted and any appeals process could rule in favor of the church; there is no need to jump in front of a microphone, regardless of media outlets seeking a story or answers. It is a confounding mystery to intelligent people why so much attention is being given to the fringe elements who make the most noise whether that’s political candidates, religious groups, citizen activists. Yes you have the right to protest at a funeral or other public place, but when you do so, you open yourself up to such lawsuits, and if you are going to protest in such a controversial place then you should be prepared to deal with the consequences.

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About Natasha Sapp

Proclaiming an edgy voice of reason to America,while bringing back the common sense to social issues.

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