Topeka Kansas Attorney General Steve Six asked attorneys general from across the country Wednesday to join him in a brief to the U.S. Supreme Court in support of a case that aims to prevent protests at funerals.
Six intends to file the friend-of-the-court brief in an appeal by the family of Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder.
Snyder’s father, Albert Snyder, sued Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka after members picketed his son’s 2006 funeral. The church contends U.S. military deaths are God’s punishment for tolerating homosexuality. The lawsuit accuses the church of invading his privacy and intentionally inflicting emotional distress.
The Supreme Court has agreed to consider whether the actions of the Westboro protesters, led by the Phelps family, are protected by the U.S. Constitution’s free speech amendment — no matter how provocative and upsetting.
Six said other states need to stand up for a family’s right to mourn loved ones in dignity. More than 40 states, including Kansas, have enacted laws regulating funeral protests.
“Funeral goers are a captive audience and they are engaged in a deeply personal and private mourning process,” Six said. “The Constitution does not give the Phelpses the right to hijack solemn proceedings such as funerals in order to spread their hateful ideas.”
As of Wednesday, 10 states had agreed to join Six in his brief and he hoped to have a final list of participants by May 26. Joining Kansas are Connecticut, Kentucky, Nebraska, Nevada, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Utah, West Virginia and Wisconsin.
Sean Summers, the family’s lead attorney, said the Snyders appreciated Six taking the initiative to get all states to join the court filing.
“Frankly, I think it will carry a lot of weight, given what Kansas has been through for the past decades,” Summers said, referring to the attention that the Phelps family brings to the state.
Matthew Snyder, 20, died in a Humvee accident in Iraq. His family lives in York, Pa., about 85 miles west of Philadelphia.
The Phelpses contacted the police before protesting Snyder’s funeral in Westminster, Md., and the protest was confined to a designated public area 1,000 feet from the church.
Albert Snyder won the first round decisively, when a jury in federal court in Baltimore awarded him $10.9 million in damages in October 2007. A judge later reduced the award to $5 million.
Last September, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the verdict, ruling Westboro’s protest was constitutionally protected free speech. In addition, the lower court ordered the Snyder family to pay the Phelps family $16,510 in court costs.
The Phelps family says they intend to use the money to continue their protests across the country. The ruling prompted an outpouring of support and donations for the Snyders, including from Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly and the American Legion.
Summers said the Snyders have received a lot of support from Kansans, many of whom begin by apologizing for the Phelps family and their actions.
Six helped Kansas legislators draft a revised funeral picketing law that was struck down in part by the Kansas Supreme Court on technical grounds. He said his brief would argue that such regulation of conduct was constitutional and that families deserved privacy during funerals.
Summers said he had contacted state officials around the country to encourage them to get their attorneys general to join the Kansas petition.
“Our goal is all 50 states, but we’re realistic about the chances,” Summers said.