Phelps calls for an exception

April 4, 2010


You will be furious when you finish this column. Fair warning.

In March 2006, a 20-year-old Marine, Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, was killed in a motor vehicle accident in Iraq. His family probably thought that the most painful blow imaginable. Truth is, their pain was only beginning.

Cpl. Snyder’s death, you see, came to the attention of Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan. Westboro, for those who do not know, is no more a church than is your average gas station toilet. According to published reports, it claims about 75 members, most of them kin to its leader, Fred Phelps. And Phelps preaches a “gospel” of anti-homosexuality that is grotesque even by the standards of fundamentalist hate.

It is his thesis that because America has embraced “fags,” God is punishing the nation. God’s instrument of choice? Dead soldiers. “Thank God for dead soldiers,” he says. Phelps has taken to spreading this message at the “funerals” of service men and women — noisy, hateful protests that grieving families are forced to endure on one of the worst days of their lives.

So in March 2006, Westboro protesters showed up at St. John’s Catholic Church (“St. John’s Kennel” in their formulation) in Westminster, Md., for Snyder’s funeral, reportedly carrying signs depicting male anal sex and slogans like “Semper Fi Fags.”

Are you furious yet? This isn’t even the bad part.

For the record, no one — Westboro included — has accused Matthew Snyder of being gay — not that that should matter. But the church’s bizarre argument is that the death of “every” dead serviceperson should be celebrated as God’s punishment of a gay-tolerant nation.

Cpl. Snyder’s father, Albert, sued the “church” for disrupting his son’s funeral. In October 2007, he won a $10.9 million verdict. Last September, an appeals court tossed that verdict out.

Nor is even that the worst of it. No, the worst is that the court recently ordered Snyder to “pay” “Westboro’s legal bills.” You heard me. Snyder, who makes $43,000 a year, must pay “$16,500” to the people who made a circus of his son’s funeral. “You can do the math,” says his attorney, Sean Summers. Snyder has been forced to seek donations online (www.matthewsnyder.org). Westboro says it will use the money to give the same treatment to another grieving family.

Take it as a reminder that what is legal is not necessarily right. I admit to being conflicted. I am a strong believer in the First Amendment and in the principle that freedom of speech means nothing unless it is protected for the vilest among us: even the flag burner, even the anti-Semite, even, as in this case, the intellectually incontinent. On the other hand, the protections are not absolute: There is no First Amendment right to threaten or to libel.

So surely we could carve out some reasonable exception that would keep a Fred Phelps from intruding upon the solemnity of a private funeral. Of course, those are legal questions and I am content to leave them to legal minds.

I am consumed with a “human” question: How addled by hatred do you have to be, how niggardly of spirit, shriveled of soul, and just plain “crazy,” to do what these people have done? To use one of my mother’s favorite expressions, these “Christians” are going to knock the bottom out of hell.

While we await that lovely day, this case is bound for the Supreme Court where Summers will continue representing Albert Snyder for free. I asked the attorney why, and he told me that he’s a veteran and has a brother doing a third tour in Afghanistan. “I would be appalled if someone did something like this at my funeral.”

You’d like to think that’s unimaginable. But we live in a country where it’s anything but. For better — and some days, for worse — those are the rights people like Matthew Snyder die to defend.

— Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald. He chats with readers from noon to 1 p.m. CDT each Wednesday on www.MiamiHerald.com. lpitts@miamiherald.com


TopJayhawk 7 years, 10 months ago

People need to savvy up. It is only about money.
His (our) first ammendment rights are inviolable. He knows that. Everyone else needs to learn it. Topeka tried to shut him down.....twice. We lost in the courts.......twice. Payed out six figure settlements........twice. Now he will be collecting settlements all over the country. People need to just ignore him.

prairierose54 7 years, 10 months ago

Topjawhawk is right, unfortunately. I have witnessed these people up close while trying to bock their signs at a funeral for 3 little children murdered by their father. Yes, they do those types of funerals also.

I believed for a long time that after Fred died that this might die out also. But his daughter Shirley is meaner than her father was.

The hate that this woman spews out is over the top.

I appears to run three generations deep now. Her children and nieces and nephews were holding signs that stated something to the effect that God loves people that kill children.

As long as people pay them to be attorneys and feed the "kitty" they are going to have the money to go all over the country to spew this hate. My thought was to picket their place of business just in case some of their clients don't know what they are about and try to shut down their "travel" money but it would take dedicated people who weren't afraid of their retaliation.

The patriot guards and other concerned and caring people do their best to shut out their poisioned messages but I don't think that will ever shut them down.

Kookamooka 7 years, 10 months ago

I haven't seen them around Lawrence much. They must be spreading their doctrine of hate somewhere else.

Scott Drummond 7 years, 10 months ago

Mr. Snyder made the decision to sue, why now complain about the consequence? If you stick your arm in the tiger's cage, sometimes the tiger takes a bite.

By the way, for all those who argue about frivolous lawsuits, here is an example of loser pays. How do you like them apples now?

tomatogrower 7 years, 10 months ago

Scott and Tom, shouldn't you be in Topeka at the Westboro Easter celebration? And clintstone, don't you need to be making more racist ads for KS radio stations?

cowboy 7 years, 10 months ago

Above comments prove decisively that evolution is selective

mom_of_three 7 years, 10 months ago

Wonder if Pitts will get sued for this column? But he didn't say anything that wasn't true.

jaywalker 7 years, 10 months ago

First of all, scott, where'd you read that the plaintiff is now "complaining"? This is Pitts' column, not an LTE. Second, this was not an example of "loser pays", as the plaintiff won the case, was awarded, and then had it reversed. It's not the same thing. Nor do we have "loser pays" as a fundamental recourse in our judicial system. The Phelps' must have counter-sued to get that judgement.

Pretty callous response on your part, all the way around.

I've always wanted to find a way to shut those people up at funerals. When they used to stand in the driveway of KJHK every Friday and shout at cars passing by some friends of mine would toss a couple stink bombs at their feet as they rounded the curve in front of JRP. I'd like to kick that up a notch. I'd prefer a Roto-Rooter drive-by water cannon loaded with construction site porta-johnny waste.

grichard3 7 years, 10 months ago

It is unfortuanate the court ruled in Phelps favor, however, what is a surprise to me is why hasnt the state adjutant general taken action against Phelps for using state property to convey his messages of religious belief. Our agency receives a fax from Phelps at least weekly letting us know what his beliefs are and what action he plans on taking. To me that is a gross misuse of state property and funds. Some would think it is only a fax and that it is harmless. But is it? Why should I and others be subjected to his beliefs at my place of work.

verity 7 years, 10 months ago

No freedom is absolute and freedom without responsibility is not freedom.

It is when people use their freedoms irresponsibly that laws are made. If everybody behaved responsibly we would not need to have laws. (I realize that is a very general statement and reasonable people will disagree on what is responsible.)

Laws which keep protesters a certain distance from abortion clinics have been upheld. Is there any reason why a law that could pass the constitutional test could not be written to keep protesters away from funerals?

Liberty275 7 years, 10 months ago

"You will be furious when you finish this column."

Bad guess Leonard. Recheck your crystal ball. It is defective.

"Phelps is pushing the envelope of free speech, which is not unlimited. "

*, unless he is calling for a specific illegal action, or is inciting imminent danger action he isn't even close to pushing the envelope.

No, Phelps is just better at free speech than you and you can't handle it. Throw tantrum.

If you can decide Phelps is "pushing the envelope", maybe Phelps will get to choose who is "pushing the envelope" next time. I guarantee he will beat you down hard in that little game.

I'll make a small bag of popcorn to eat while I watch your clock get cleaned.

Liberty275 7 years, 10 months ago

"Is there any reason why a law that could pass the constitutional test could not be written to keep protesters away from funerals?"

Such zoning laws are routinely used against phelps, antiwar whiners, leftwing goofs (in the good ol days of Dubya), idiot klans and even fine upstanding libertarians.

The issue is distance. You can't push protesters so far away that it effectively silences them. As I have noted in the past, such reckless zoning could easily put the usual antiwar zombies in the alley behind "Lousiana Purchase" instead of on the sidewalk in front.

You have to take the good with the bad, regardless of how you apply those two terms unless you are a blatant hypocrite. I find this forum to be about 20% populated by blatant hypocrites, so you wouldn't find yourself all alone if you made that decision.

Tom Miller 7 years, 10 months ago

@ scott3460...

your remarks sound kinda "phelpsian",,,are you a wbc member, or what?

Kontum1972 7 years, 10 months ago

the Feds are keeping an eye on this crew...

Tom Miller 7 years, 10 months ago

verity (anonymous) says…

No freedom is absolute and freedom without responsibility is not freedom.

It is when people use their freedoms irresponsibly that laws are made. If everybody behaved responsibly we would not need to have laws. (I realize that is a very general statement and reasonable people will disagree on what is responsible.)

Right ON!!!

mom_of_three 7 years, 10 months ago

charging lawyers fees to represent yourself? How convenient. Don't you wish they could be dis-barred?

mom_of_three 7 years, 10 months ago

next time they picket, just bring a couple of school marching bands to play next to them, some nice military, patriotic marches...wouldn't be able to hear them or see too much of them, and the band can move where ever they go.

Tom Miller 7 years, 10 months ago

...haven't one or more of "them" BEEN dis-barred? Guess I mis-heard, or sumthin'.

Ron Holzwarth 7 years, 9 months ago

Yes you heard right, Fred Phelps was disbarred from both state and federal court practice years ago.

tomatogrower 7 years, 10 months ago

mom_of_three (anonymous) says… Wonder if Pitts will get sued for this column? But he didn't say anything that wasn't true.

Phelp's would probably like to try. After all only his family has the right to free speech.

BorderRuffian 7 years, 10 months ago

I thought I heard somewhere that Ole Freddie had some sort of homosexual experience that he has been trying to scourge from himself ever since... just what I heard, tho.

jaywalker 7 years, 10 months ago

Only someone as disturbed as porch person would accuse 275 of "supporting" Phelps with that post..

Moderateguy 7 years, 10 months ago

I wish just once these pathologically evil people would accidentally picket the funeral of an MS-13 member. Things might just work themselves out. When you stop to think about it, the fact that the Phred's group still lives is a testament to our society's true sense of morality. I'm simply amazed that somebody somewhere hasn't snapped to this point.

Karma can be a real equalizer though. The Phelps clan will get real justice in the afterlife, and not the kind they are expecting.

In the meantime though, how about some Phred urinal cakes?

Liberty275 7 years, 10 months ago

"I meant to say "You're coloring in all the spaces in your portrait, Liberty275""

*, next time just cut and paste. At least that gives you an opportunity to post original thoughts.

Liberty275 7 years, 10 months ago

"Only someone as disturbed as porch person"

  • isn't so much disturbed as he is lacking in the ability to use logic and think beyond about a fifth grade level. To paraphrase a great author, thinking down to his level gives me a headache.

Liberty275 7 years, 10 months ago

"VERY good point, porch_person."

You spelled "red herring" wrong.

Liberty275 7 years, 10 months ago

This comment was removed by the site staff for violation of the usage agreement.

jaywalker 7 years, 10 months ago

This comment was removed by the site staff for violation of the usage agreement.

Tom McCune 7 years, 10 months ago

God hates England God hates France God hates Freddie's Unhinged rants

God hates Shirley God hates Fred God shuns haters, Jesus said

independant1 7 years, 10 months ago

They were very religious people that come over here from the old country. They were very human. They would shoot a couple of Indians on their way to every prayer meeting. (Will Rogers)

jaywalker 7 years, 10 months ago

Seek help porch. Seek intensive, psychiatric help. You need a team, not just one person. Do it for anyone that cares for you, do it for your folks.

TopJayhawk 7 years, 10 months ago

To answer a few questions.
Fred was disbarred yrs ago. The law firm is run by his kids. I would bet though that Fred ghost writes most of the stuff. What just happened is People playing into his hands and making business for the family firm. Fred thanks you. Second, Fred marginalized and made outsiders of his kids since I went to school with them back in the mid 70's. How he did it is a long story that I can't go into here. One way though was to make the kids beat on each other when they "transgressed." If they did not beat the other kid, Fred would beat both of them.
There are two or three kids who have broken away from the family, last I heard, they live in California, and try to protect their annonymity. Fred just tries to goad people into suing him as he knows he will win.

TopJayhawk 7 years, 10 months ago

I don't want to get into the inevitable bickering here. But the fact is Fred will beat down, and clean the clock of anyone who tries to sue him.
How many times does this need to be demonstrated in court. As long as he doesn't yell "Fire" in a crowded theater, Fred will win. A few yrs ago, folks in Topeka even thought about pulling a "Skidmore" on him. But there is just too many of them, and too many other people around to do that. The only time Fred was stopped-sort of- was when they went to Texas a few yrs back to protest Hillary Clinton. (then first lady) They bagan to march toward her. The Secret Service pulled out their 10mm. Said "One more step and you die." And the whole hateful bunch stopped dead in their tracks and left.

jaywalker 7 years, 10 months ago


You've had those quotes explained to you multiple times. The fact that you have to skew them so severely merely proves how nuts you are. The fact you can't wage a debate with me without regurgitating them proves how over-matched and sad you are.
I have no idea what you're talking about in regards to Liberty275's conversation w/ jonas or any of his other opinions on Koresh or anyone else; sorry, I have a life and can't troll these boards incessantly like yourself.
And to be clear, I've never claimed you were "fringe"; you're a freakin' whackadoo, that much is incredibly obvious.

No kiddin', seek help. I don't think you're political views are dangerous or even extreme; it's your mania that needs immediate addressing. You're shiitake-bird nuts, kiddo. You need help. I mean this sincerely. I don't like to see any of my fellow human beings suffering like you do, regardless your lies and perversions concerning myself. Get help, 'cuz someone out there truly cares for you, fairly sure of that. Do it for them.

gatekeeper 7 years, 10 months ago

They'll be in Lawrence protesting next Friday and Saturday. There will be many of us mocking them with ridiculous signs and music. That's the only way you can deal with them and shut them down. They will be at the KS Union on Friday and downtown Sat morning to protest the Pride parade. I encourage anyone to join with your own signs. We can't be confrontational with them or else you'll get in trouble. They tape everything and will sue anyone infringing on their rights (you have been warned). But, they can't do anything about you grouping around them with your own signs as long as you are peaceful. Please see this footage from the same thing being done in CA.

fester0420 7 years, 7 months ago

fred phelps is a moron that will die in hell (if there was one). but how do you right a report like this and use a word like "niggardly". seems kinda mest up

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