Free to Desecrate? Fred Phelps Goes to Court

Chuck Colson | BreakPoint | Friday, October 08, 2010

Free to Desecrate? Fred Phelps Goes to Court

October 11, 2010

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court heard arguments in what could be a landmark free-speech case, Snyder v. Phelps.

Snyder is the name of the family of Marine Corporal Matthew Snyder, who was killed in Iraq in 2006. As the Snyder family gathered to bury their son, Fred Phelps and members of his Westboro Baptist Church picketed the funeral. They waved signs with messages like, "Thank God for Dead Soldiers" and "God Hates You." You can imagine what I—as a former Marine—think about that.

But why did they do it? Well, they believe that God is punishing America for its sins, especially the sin of rampant homosexuality. And American soldiers and their grieving families are favorite targets of Westoboro's vile, despicable, and—Westboro would claim—constitutionally protected protests.

But is such behavior outside a private funeral protected by the Constitution's guarantee of free speech?

The Snyder family sued Phelps for causing extreme emotional distress. As Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler wrote in the Washington Post, the jury found that "while the Phelpses may have a general right to broadcast their hate, their intrusion on Cpl. Snyder's funeral nevertheless constituted a wrong."

Which is why the jury awarded Snyder monetary damages, finding that Phelps and his followers, "through their disruptive picketing and public insult of the Snyder family at a time of grief, had engaged in conduct that was extreme, outrageous and designed to inflict severe emotional distress on Mr. Snyder--distress that included worsened diabetes and depression."

Phelps, however, won on appeal, so now the case is in the hands of the Supreme Court.

If you've listened to BreakPoint at all over the past year, you have heard me speak about the absolute importance of freedom of religion—the right of every individual to live out his or her own beliefs in private and in public. That's one of the three pillars of the Manhattan Declaration. And there is no doubt in my mind that freedom of speech and freedom of religion are closely linked.

In general, I believe that restricting freedom of speech will inevitably weaken religious freedom. But—and I pause for emphasis—not in this case.

American jurisprudence has always recognized limits to free speech. You are not free to libel or slander someone. You are not free to cause panic, as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously ruled,  by falsely yelling "fire" in a crowded movie theater.

The central question here is, as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted during the hearing, is whether the First Amendment must tolerate "exploiting this bereaved family."

I hope and pray that the answer is, "No." It would be reasonable for the Supreme Court to rule that the Constitution does not protect the desecration of a sacred service such as a funeral, but that it does protect a family's right to bury their son in peace.

And sadly, at a time when religious freedom is indeed under pressure from all sides, Westboro's hurtful behavior will make protecting our religious freedoms all the more difficult.

May God bless our soldiers, sailors, and airmen who place their lives on the line for our freedoms, and may God hear the prayers of their families who love them so dearly.

Chuck Colson's daily BreakPoint commentary airs each weekday on more than one thousand outlets with an estimated listening audience of one million people. BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today's news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print.