Albert Snyder’s heart sank when he picked up his local newspaper on the morning after he buried his son, Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, and found the front page dominated by a story about protestors thanking God for killing another soldier.
Snyder knew then he had to do something.
“It was splattered all over the newspapers the next day,” Snyder told TODAY co-host Matt Lauer in an exclusive interview Thursday. “The thing that was so disappointing was the fact that there was like, a two-by-two picture of my son and almost a full page on the protestors. That was kind of hard.”
Snyder sued the group, and on Wednesday a Maryland jury found the members of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., who organized the protest, liable for damages they caused the Snyder family.
The church was ordered to pay Albert Snyder nearly $11 million.
First suit of its kind
The group has protested at dozens of soldier funerals, but Snyder is the first to take Westboro Baptist to court.
Matthew Snyder was killed in a motor vehicle accident while on duty in Iraq. His funeral took place in March 2006 in Westminster, Md.
While services were being held, three adults and four children from the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., picketed on a sidewalk within view of the church, holding signs, including ones that read “Thank God For Dead Soldiers” and “God Hates Fags.”
The church has gained considerable publicity and generated controversy by picketing soldiers’ funerals.
The church’s members believe that God is punishing America for being tolerant of homosexuals and views the death of soldiers as a welcome sign of God’s wrath. The church is also planning protests at the funerals of seven University of South Carolina students who died in a house fire while on an outing to a North Carolina beach.
Snyder told Lauer that some people who attended the funeral saw the protestors, but he didn’t.
“The day of the funeral, I honestly tried to do all my focusing on my son,” he said. “I didn’t see the signs that day, which I’m very grateful for.”
Snyder said what outraged him was what he saw as the group’s use of the First Amendment guarantee of free speech to spread hate and inflict pain on grieving families.
“My son fought for freedom of speech. My son did not fight for freedom of hate speech,” he told Lauer. “Everybody’s under the impression that the First Amendment gives them the right to do anything, say anything — anywhere at any time. Along with the First Amendment also comes responsibility.”
“Our Supreme Court said one of our most precious rights is to be left alone, in other words, not be bothered,” added Snyder’s attorney, Sean Summers.
“No one has disputed the fact that this so-called church can say whatever they want to say at their church. The problem is when they interject themselves and their antics at someone else’s church at a particularly private time when you have a captive audience at a funeral.”
Since the protest at Matthew Snyder’s funeral, Maryland has joined a number of other states in passing laws prohibiting the kind of demonstrations the Westboro church stages at funerals.
The church was founded in the 1950s by Fred Phelps, a lawyer. The $11-million judgment was against him and his two daughters, Shirley Phelps-Roper and Rebekah Phelps-Davis. The church has a Web page which is dominated by anti-homosexual themes and which claims that among the places God hates and plans to destroy are America, Canada and Sweden.
Phelps told reporters he would appeal the verdict and was confident that it will be reversed. “We got more and we’re getting more appropriate news coverage than we’ve ever done,” he said of the trial.
“I’m not sure what point they were trying to get across,” said Snyder, who said that the signs that he took most personally were the ones that said “You’re going to hell,” and “God hates you.”