CNN reports a victory in the Supreme Court of the United States for the Westboro Baptist Church today. The vote was 8-1, with Justice Samuel Alito dissenting. The case began in 2006 when the Westboro congregation protested the funeral of Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder in Westminster, Maryland.
Snyder’s father sued the church “alleging invasion of privacy, intentional infliction of emotional distress and civil conspiracy.” The Snyder family won, but through appeal the case ended up in Supreme Court.
Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts said:
“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.”
He also chastised the church, claiming:
“Westboro believes that America is morally flawed; many Americans might feel the same about Westboro. Westboro’s funeral picketing is certainly hurtful and its contribution to public discourse may be negligible,” he said. However, “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.”
The ruling was a narrow one, dealing with the specific, unusual facts of this appeal. Such vocal protests at military funerals are almost entirely confined to this one small group. Roberts said on the free speech question, it was enough to rely on “limited principles that sweep no more broadly than the appropriate context of the instant case.”
Justice Alito, writing the dissent, said Westboro Batist Church’s “outrageous conduct caused petitioner great injury, and the court now compounds that injury by depriving petitioner of a judgment that acknowledges the wrong he suffered,” he said. “In order to have a society in which public issues can be openly and vigorously debated, it is not necessary to allow the brutalization of innocent victims like petitioner.”
This is a sensitive matter, to say the least. There are two worlds colliding in this case. The decision by the Supreme Court will be one discussed in college classrooms for some time. As Americans, we enjoy a freedom of speech unrivaled by any country in the world, however, this freedom will come at great personal pain for some.
As an Atheist, this becomes a matter which falls into a middle area that is blurred by politics and freedom vs. religion. It is not easy to say how I feel. I agree with the Court. Freedom of Speech is a true treasure and must be protected, even if the majority of Americans disagree with the message. At the same time, I view the Westboro Baptist Church’s message as one of the most significant problems plaguing our country today. The fact remains that Christians are taught that homosexuality is a hell-worthy sin (1 Corinthians 6:9). Most Christians are not as insensitive as the Westboro Church, and very few are as outspoken, but the idea still lingers in the back of their head – always ready to pass judgement.