In an 8-1 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court today ruled that the First Amendment protects the rights of a fundamentalist Christian church to use and display anti-military slurs near the funerals of fallen troops.
The court's vote in favor of Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., lets stand a lower court decision that tossed out a $5 million judgment against the church for picketing the service of a Maryland Marine.
Justice Samuel Alito was the only one to rule in favor of the family of the late Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder.
"Our profound national commitment to free and open debate is not a license for the vicious verbal assault that occurred in this case," Alito wrote in his dissent.
Writing for the majority, Justice John Roberts said the First Amendment shields the funeral protesters, noting that they obeyed police directions and were 1,000 feet from the church.
"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," Roberts said. "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."
Veterans groups were resigned to the high court's decision.
"I think this will settle the argument of whether you can use this particular vehicle that Mr. Snyder did" to halt the Westboro protests, said Mark Seavey, a spokesman for The American Legion. "That's been rendered completely moot by the court."
Matthew Snyder died in Iraq in 2006 and his body was returned to the United States for burial. Members of the Westboro Baptist Church, who have picketed military funerals for several years, decided to protest outside the Westminster, Md., church where his funeral was to be held.
The Rev. Fred Phelps and his family members who make up most of the Westboro Baptist Church have picketed many military funerals to draw attention to their stance that U.S. deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq are God's punishment for America's tolerance of homosexuality.
Their signs used during pickets read "Thank God for dead soldiers," "You're Going to Hell," "God Hates the USA/Thank God for 9/11," and one that combined the U.S. Marine Corps motto, Semper Fi, with a slur against gay men.
The church members often drew counter-demonstrators, as well as media coverage and a heavy police presence to maintain order. The result was a spectacle that led to altering the route of the funeral procession.
"The larger question of time and place and manner [of protest] -- those might come more to the fore because of it," added the American Leagion's Seavey, who said he thinks communities will take another look at laws or ordinances regarding the distance between protesters and funeral services.
The Veterans of Foreign Wars said it is "greatly disappointed" with the court's ruling.
"The right to free speech does not trump a family's right to mourn in private, and though the Westboro Baptist Church may think they have won, the VFW will continue to support community efforts to ensure no one hears their voice," said spokesman Joe Davis.