Omaha, Neb. The Westboro Baptist Church has taken an unusual legal move by asking the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene in a Maryland lawsuit and a Nebraska criminal case to protect the fundamentalist group's right to protest at military funerals.
The Topeka, Kan.-based church believes the war in Iraq is a punishment for the nation's tolerance of homosexuality. The church argues the Supreme Court should step in because the pending lower court cases could inhibit church members' protests, which they consider an expression of their religious faith.
Last month a federal jury in Baltimore ordered the church to pay nearly $11 million to a grieving father. Members of the church demonstrated at the 2006 funeral of Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder.
And one of the church's leaders, Shirley Phelps-Roper, is facing criminal charges of flag mutilation and negligent child abuse tied to a protest at a Bellevue soldier's funeral in June.
Sarpy County Attorney Lee Polikov filed criminal charges against Phelps-Roper because she allowed her 10-year-old son to stand on an American flag during the protest. He has said the charges are justified because violence could have ensued.
Nebraska's flag law defines flag mutilation as when a "person intentionally casts contempt or ridicule upon a flag by mutilating, defacing, defiling, burning or trampling upon such flag."
Ronald Collins, a scholar at the First Amendment Center, said the church's Supreme Court filing seems bizarre to him because no appellate courts have evaluated the lawsuit verdict and the criminal case has not even gone to trial. Plus he said it's unusual to combine two different cases from different states and jurisdictions in one motion.
"I can't imagine the Supreme Court doing anything with this," Collins said.
The church plans to file more conventional appeals in the lawsuit, and Phelps-Roper will continue fighting the Nebraska charges. But Phelps-Roper said church officials wanted to give the U.S. Supreme Court a chance to address the compelling constitutional questions these cases raise. "This is a very interesting, lively discussion that is permeating doomed America," she said.