There are so many controversial issues surrounding the recent court ruling against millennial cultist leader Rev. Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church that it's hard to know where to begin discussing it. Perhaps the worst part is that it puts me in the position of having to defend a pack of poisonous, inbred lunatics who I wish would just drop off the face of the earth.
For the past 15 years, Phelps and his church members (who are mostly directly related to him) have traveled around the country picketing public events and funerals, promoting their basic message that because of the decadence of American society, particularly in the area of toleration for homosexuality, America is doomed and is going to be targeted by God's judgement for being a modern day Sodom. They started out promoting the idea that AIDS was God's punishment for homosexuality, they moved on to claiming the 9/11 attack was God's vengeance, and most recently they have focused on the idea that the deaths of US soldiers in Iraq is the will of God to punish the immoral nation.
The cultlike church, which no major Baptist affiliation has been willing to associate with, has an overwhelming lust for any kind of media attention no matter how negative. In pursuit of exposure for their message they have discovered that the more outrageous and offensive their conduct, the more attention they will get. They really hit paydirt in their campaign to be as obnoxious as possible when they began picketing military funerals bearing signs with slogans like "God Hates Fags," "Thank God for Dead Soldiers," and "You're Going to Hell." Their fanaticism blinds them to the overwhelmingly negative public reaction to their behavior and they remain convinced that their radical methods are an effective way to get their message out. To some degree they are right, because it does get them so much press coverage that they will at least reach the attention of the small population of fellow bigots their message will appeal to.
The protests have generated strong and organized counter-protests, led by a coalition of Veteran bikers called the Patriot Guard who show up at protests and rev their engines to drown out the protesters. Their intentions are admirable, but the result is usually even more chaos and disruption at the military funerals targeted by Phelps and his followers, contributing to the circuslike atmosphere of the protests.
Albert Snyder, the father of a dead soldier whose funeral they picketed, brought a civil suit against them in US District Court in Maryland. This week a ruling was handed down for $2.9 million in compensatory damages and $8 million in punitive damages, about ten times the total assets of the church and the three church members (Phelps and two of his daughters) specifically named in the suit.
The jury ruling, with damages expressly intended to bankrupt the church and its leaders, is an understandable reaction to their offensive behavior. It is well intentioned, but it is not going to be effective and is not legally justifiable.
Fanatics absolutely thrive on persecution, and this ruling allows them to pose as martyrs while they can likely get away with not paying a cent while they appeal the ruling and find ways to hide their assets with other family members. They can parade their clean-cut children as the ultimate victims of the suit and make themselves look like victims of a capricious jury and thereby elevate their cause in the eyes of those inclined to be sympathetic to their cause. The ruling may even generate enough sympathy to help them raise significant amounts of money from outside of their church membership.
Legally the ruling also raises troubling issues. There is a reason why no jurisdiction has been able to successfully prosecute the protesters under criminal statutes for anything but the most minor crimes, and those suits usually don't stick. If they were trespassing or creating a public nuisance, then there are criminal laws which would be violated and they could be hauled off to jail. The problem is that they stick to public property, follow local regulations and limit their protests to skirt the line of the law so that they don't get shut down by the police.
No matter how abhorrent their beliefs, they do have a right to free speech which is protected by the constitution and by state laws. It's a classic example of a situation where we can hate what they say, but we sort of have to stand up for their right to say it, even if it offends. So long as they don't intrude on the funeral itself and disrupt the proceedings or trespass on private property, they're within their rights of free speech and free assembly.
This is exactly why this civil suit exists. When the law protects protesters like this, the only recourse to punish them is through a private suit in front of a jury where many legal protections fall by the wayside. Proof of criminality becomes largely irrelevant and it can come down as it does in this case to nothing more than a jury finding their behavior offensive and ruling on that subjective basis. It feels satisfying at the time, but it's not really justice under the law.
Phelps is likely correct when he says that this ruling will be struck down by the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, and the sad result of that is that ultimately all this suit really does is bring more attention to Fred Phelps and his traveling freak show of bigotry.