Grieving families have rights too

31 03 2010

I am normally a proponent of Voltaire’s infamous quote I disagree with what you say but I shall defend to the death your right to say it.  I say normally because up until about 9 am this morning I had always been a supporter of this belief.  I’d never had a reason not to believe that as human beings, no matter our nationality, we have the right from birth to speak freely and express our unique thoughts to others.  It is one of the fundamental rights we have as Americans as well, being protected by the First Amendment even.

So what occurred at 9 this morning to change my thoughts you may wonder?

I read for the first time about Albert Snyder and his deceased son.  In case you’ve been beneath a rock like I have for the past four years, his son was killed in the line of duty in Iraq during his service to his country in the US Marines.  That was in 2006.  When his family held his funeral in Maryland, a small church group chose to come and demonstrate at his funeral.

Now I want to pause a moment to explain what I have found on this church.  The church is known as the Westboro Baptist Church, established in the mid 1950s as an independent Baptist church by a father named Fred Phelps.  And the early bits of history that I can find on this minister are actually very honourable, including fighting the laws of Kansas in regards to discrimination against minorities that were upheld at that time by the Jim Crow laws.  Fred established himself as not only a preacher but also as an attorney, defending the rights of minorities and females and helping them attain equal rights and was even featured in Time Magazine for his work.

Fast forward to the late 1970s when he loses his marbles and morals.  He sues a court reporter for showing up late, despite the fact he still won his case.  He sues President Reagan for sending an ambassador to visit the Vatican.  He sues Washburn Law School for not allowing his (white) children to attend the school under a minority status.  He eventually, along with his children, is barred from practising law.

I can’t find a clear cut answer on when he and his church began picketing funerals, but I did find that by 1992 Kansas had amended their state laws to prohibit anyone, including his church members, from picketing before or after a funeral – later amended to specifically state that one hour prior and one hour after a funeral picketing was prohibited.  And along the way this man, and his church (which is comprised primarily of his children and their families) have picketed many funerals, such as that of Matthew Shepard, Fred Rogers, Carrie French, Gordon B Hinckley, USN Chief Petty Officer Adam Brown, Michael Jackson, Coretta Scott King, Edward Myers, the Virginia Tech students that were gunned down, Jerry Falwell, USM Sergeant Bryan Opskar, Al Gore’s father – the list could go on for miles.

In 2006 though, they moved to protest and picket at the funeral of this young man and praise his death.  Yes, praise.  All because they truly believe that our soldier’s deaths are a punishment from God for our nation being immoral.  In fact if you visit their website, you can view firsthand the list of planned pickets for funerals – many, even perhaps I can say most are funerals for our fallen soldiers who have died in foreign lands in the line of duty.  You know, as much as I despised her methods, I could at least understand to some degree the mindset of Cindy Sheehan.  But not this guy and his followers.

Obviously Mr. Snyder couldn’t understand it either and chose to file a lawsuit against the church for disrupting his son’s funeral with their chants and  signs of ‘Thank you God for killing soldiers’ and other such mantras.  And the first time through court he won.  But on an appeal, the courts decided that it was the right of the church to say what they wished, protected by the First Amendment, that right that the soldier they defamed served to protect.

So I wondered why is that legal?

And I found the law enacted by former President G. W. Bush, called the “Respect for America’s Fallen Heroes Act”, but this applies only to Arlington National Cemetery and other National Cemetery Association cemeteries – basically military cemeteries.  The hope of the federal government was that individual states would later enact their own bills to prevent picketing at civilian cemeteries.  And many have.  All but 9 states in fact: Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming but many have been challenged, several by Phelps and his family.  Including Maryland.  Mr. Snyder has appealed to the Supreme Court and hopefully they can see fit to determine that while we may deserve the right to express our thoughts, there is a time and a place to do so and a funeral is not either.

I search the words to say and I am at a loss.  The best thoughts I have are most politely articulated by Rep. Paul Wesselhoft (R-Oklahoma), “I am not regulating content of speech.  Citizens are afforded various places at numerous times to picket, protest and fully exercise their First Amendment rights, precious rights that I have defended as a combat veteran, but a funeral is not such a place or time.  Grieving families have rights too.”  I couldn’t have said it better Mr. Wesselhoft.

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5 responses

2 04 2010
Erin

MOre than 95% of Christians today should have been stoned to death by the old testament standards. What these groups fail to get out of the message of Jesus is that God does not tolerate sin, God forgives sin. Groups like this and the Dove OUtreach one in FL are poor representations of christianity.

20 05 2010
protogere

I couldn’t agree more with you Erin.

2 04 2010
Mike

Speaking the truth is not hate and homosexuality is a sin no matter how you try to objectify it. Leviticus 18:22

20 05 2010
protogere

You can speak your opinion without being hateful. The manner in which this group decides to speak their opinions at the funerals of men and women who have died for their right to speak that opinion is hateful.

26 11 2010
NHCR

I have to commend the creator of this site – you did a terrific job….

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