A legislative remedy would be better

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By John Barnhart

    Last week, the Supreme Court heard arguments in Snyder v. Phelps, a lawsuit. The Phelps in the case is Fred Phelps, the pastor of Westboro Baptist Church, in Kansas. The Snyder is Albert Snyder, the father of a Marine who was  killed in Iraq in 2006. Phelps and his followers showed up at the funeral waving protest signs with slogans that included “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” and “God hates Fags.” They also displayed a sign, because the Snyders are Roman Catholic, stating “Pope in Hell.”

    Phelps has for some years been holding protests at military funerals for men killed in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. He claims that Americans are getting killed in these war zones as divine retribution for our nation’s tolerance of homosexual behavior.
    The New Testament clearly condemns homosexual behavior as sexual immorality. Every pastor who believes the Bible and accepts Scriptural authority ought to speak out against it as they would in respect to any other sinful behavior. They should be able to do this without facing legal action as a result because two of the basic freedoms we have in our republic, enshrined in the First Amendment, are religious freedom and freedom of speech.
    Phelps and his crew, however, go way over the top when they carry out these protests at the funerals for young men killed in combat. These are men who died in battle to defend these freedoms from some very nasty folks who would extinguish these freedoms if they could. These American servicemen are better, more noble men than Phelps and his followers and they deserve our respect for their service. Their grieving families also deserve respect and should be able to say their final earthly goodbye to their sons in peace and dignity.
    Phelps also goes over the top, spiritually. I don’t recall ever seeing him explain how he knows that these deaths are divine judgement. A lot of Americans were killed in WWI, WWII and Korea. Were their death’s divine judgement on America?  I know Phelps can’t defend his position from Scripture. I’ve read the entire Bible through probably 10 times in my lifetime, and the New Testament more often than that and I know Phelps can’t use the Scripture to defend his position without playing some sort of bizarre games. Maybe he thinks he has a special hotline to God that other Christians don’t.
    Nevertheless, much as I would love to see Mr. Snyder successfully sue Phelps until smoke comes off of him for these military funeral protests, I believe that the Supreme Court should uphold the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals' decision that overturned a lower court decision awarding Snyder $10.9 million in damages.
    The Wall Street Journal had an excellent opinion piece at the top of Page A20 in its Oct, 6 edition that points out that Snyder’s suit threatens free speech because it would create a tort liability for hateful speech. Speech that someone thinks is hateful because they don’t like the ideas expressed could be suppressed via a lawsuit. Politicians, for instance, could potentially silence political critics by suing them.
    Mr. Snyder’s lawsuit is an inappropriate way to deal with Phelps and his followers. The potential for impact, harmful impact, that goes beyond the obnoxious target of this particular lawsuit is too great. Protests at military funerals are better dealt with legislatively. The Journal editorial points out that 40 states already have laws on their books limiting protests near funerals. The other 10 states, that don’t, should act. Then, when Phelps and company show up to rub salt in the wounds of grieving families, the police can take these clowns in hand. Meanwhile, the rest of us will still be free to criticize public figures as much as we like and engage in peaceful protests without fear of becoming the target of a civil suit by somebody who doesn’t like what we said.