article yesterday about the Rev. Fred Phelps that is a pretty interesting read and yesterday evening, ABC's Nightline did a segment about the group he leads and one of his estranged sons. If you aren't familiar with Rev. Phelps, then he is the leader of the Westboro Baptist Church group who is notorious for their "God Hates Fags" message. They first garnered national attention when they picketed Matthew Shepard's funeral. Shepard was a Wyoming college student who was gruesomely murdered because he was gay. Phelps' group showed up carrying signs saying that Shepard was rotting in hell because he was a homosexual. Needless to say, this was a horrible act on their part and could only have made an already tragic situation even worse for Shepard's family and friends. In 2006, Phelps' group showed up at the funeral of a Marine who was killed in combat in Iraq to protest and were claiming that American soldiers being killed was a sign that God is angry with us for being tolerant of homosexuality in our country. They had no connection to the solider's family or any real reason to be there other than to draw attention to themselves. The soldier's family sued Phelp's church (and rightfully so) for invasion of privacy, intentional infliction of emotional distress and civil conspiracy and was eventually awarded $5 million in a jury trial. The judgment wound up being reversed when Phelps appealed. The father of the marine subsequently appealed that ruling and this past March, the Supreme Court decided that they will hear the case. As CNN stated, "The court is being asked to address how far entities such as cemeteries and churches can go in restricting demonstrators' right to free speech."
This is obviously going to be a huge decision by the Supreme Court. Freedom of speech is something that we as Americans cherish greatly, but we will probably debate until the end of time if and when a line should be drawn. As much as I despise Phelps' message, he most certainly has the right to express his opinion and if he wants to do it in a public forum, then he also has that right. That being said, I do not defend his right to disrupt the funeral of a complete stranger to push his agenda. Could you imagine if someone close to you passed away and these nut jobs showed up at their funeral screaming about your loved ones death being a sign that God hates homosexuals? An already painful moment made infinitely worse by the selfish and vile actions of complete strangers? The mere thought of it makes me livid. This is akin to the pro-life groups that harass women and doctors as they enter abortion clinics. Again, they have the right to assemble and protest in public and voice their opinion, but do they have the right to harass innocent strangers? (Most pro-lifers would probably argue that the people they are harassing aren't "innocent", but that is a whole other debate all together.)
It is hard to say for certain where the Supreme Court will go with this, but I really hope they create some measures that allow churches, cemeteries and authorties the ability to keep these kind of protests out of the the eyesight and earshot of the mourning families.
Here is the segment from last night's Nightline if you would like to watch it: