BALTIMORE (Nov. 1) -Members of a fundamentalist Kansas church ordered to pay nearly $11 million in damages to a grieving father smiled as they walked out of the courtroom, vowing that the verdict would not deter them from protesting at military funerals.
"Absolutely, don't you understand this was an act in futility?" said Shirley Phelps-Roper, whose father founded the Westboro Baptist Church.
Members promised to picket future funerals with placards bearing such slogans as "Thank God for dead soldiers" and "God hates fags."
They believe that U.S. deaths in the Iraq war are punishment for the nation's tolerance of homosexuality. They say they are entitled to protest at funerals under the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of speech and religion.
Albert Snyder sued the Topeka, Kan., church after a protest last year at the funeral of his son, Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, who was killed in Iraq. He claimed the protests intruded upon what should have been a private ceremony and sullied his memory of the event.
A jury agreed. On Wednesday, the church and three of its leaders Fred Phelps and his two daughters, Phelps-Roper and Rebekah Phelps-Davis were found liable for invasion of privacy and intent to inflict emotional distress.
Jurors awarded Snyder $2.9 million in compensatory damages and $8 million in punitive damages.
It's unclear whether Snyder will be able to collect the damages.
The assets of the church and the defendants are less than a million dollars, mainly in homes, cars and retirement accounts, defense attorney Jonathan Katz said. The church has about 75 members and is funded by tithing.
Craig Trebilcock, one of Snyder's lawyers, had asked jurors to question the truthfulness of the defendants' financial documents, one of which show Phelps-Davis having only $306 in the bank. He noted that Phelps-Davis is a practicing attorney, who could afford to travel to spread the church's message.
"Rebekah Phelps-Davis has $306? She must be using Priceline.com. It doesn't make any sense," Trebilcock said.
The attorney had urged jurors to award damages that would send a message to the church: "Do not bring your circus of hate to Maryland again."
Trebilcock later called the verdict "Judgment Day for the Westboro Baptist Church."
"They're always talking about other people's Judgment Day. Well, this is theirs," he said.
Snyder sobbed when he heard the verdict, while members of the church greeted the news with tightlipped smiles.
They are confident the award will be overturned on appeal, Phelps said.
"Oh, it will take about five minutes to get that thing reversed," he said.
Another of Snyder's attorneys, Sean Summers, said he would tirelessly seek payment of the award.
"We will chase them forever if it takes that long," he said.
A number of states have passed laws regarding funeral protests, and Congress has passed a law prohibiting such protests at federal cemeteries. Snyder's lawsuit is believed to be the first filed by the family of a fallen serviceman.
Snyder, of York, Pa., said he hoped other families would consider suing.
"The goal wasn't about the money, it was to set a precedent so other people could do the same thing," he said.
Earlier in the day, church members staged a demonstration outside the federal courthouse, while passing motorists honked and shouted insults.
Phelps held a sign emblazoned with "God is your enemy," while Phelps-Roper stood on an American flag as she carried a sign that proclaimed "God hates fag enablers." Members of the group also sang "God Hates America," to the tune of "God Bless America."
Comment: If we can bypass the issue that it is simply horrifying that members of a church would show up at the funerals of soldiers to taunt the family members by telling them that God hates their dead child, this case presents very interesting First Amendment issues. I recall in the late 1970s when the American Nazi Party wanted to stage a march through the Jewish suburb of Skokie, Illinois (which included many Holocaust survivors), the American Civil Liberties Union argued that even Nazis had the right to free speech -- and the courts agreed.