By ALEX DOMINGUEZ
Associated Press Writer
BALTIMORE (AP) - Members of a fundamentalist Kansas church ordered to pay nearly $11 million in damages to a grieving father smiled as they walked out of the courtroom, vowing that the verdict would not deter them from protesting at military funerals.
Members promised to picket future funerals with placards bearing such slogans as "Thank God for dead soldiers" and "God hates fags."
"Absolutely, don't you understand this was an act in futility?" said Shirley Phelps-Roper, whose father founded the Westboro Baptist Church.
The group believes that U.S. deaths in the Iraq war are punishment for the nation's tolerance of homosexuality. They say they are entitled to protest at funerals under the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of speech and religion.
Albert Snyder sued the Topeka, Kan., church after a protest last year at the funeral of his son, Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, who was killed in Iraq. He claimed the protests intruded upon what should have been a private ceremony and sullied his memory of the event.
A jury agreed. On Wednesday, the church and three of its leaders - Fred Phelps and his two daughters, Phelps-Roper and Rebekah Phelps-Davis - were found liable for invasion of privacy and intent to inflict emotional distress. Jurors awarded Snyder $2.9 million in compensatory damages and $8 million in punitive damages.
Snyder, of York, Pa., said he hoped other families would consider suing.
"The goal wasn't about the money, it was to set a precedent so other people could do the same thing," he said.
Appearing on NBC's "Today" show Thursday, Sndyer said that while his son was fighting for freedom for Iraqis, "my son did not fight for hate speech.
"And that's basically what it is," he said of the church's protest. "Everybody's under the impression that the First Amendment gives them the right to do anything, say anything any where, any time. And along with the First Amendment also comes responsibility."
Snyder said that on the day of the funeral, he didn't see the protesters or their signs, only the tops of the signs. "But a lot of people at the church did see it," he said. "And it was splattered all over the newspapers the next day."
It's unclear whether Snyder will be able to collect the damages.
The assets of the church and the defendants are less than a million dollars, mainly in homes, cars and retirement accounts, defense attorney Jonathan Katz said. The church has about 75 members and is funded by tithing.
Craig Trebilcock, one of Snyder's lawyers, had asked jurors to question the truthfulness of the defendants' financial documents, one of which show Phelps-Davis having only $306 in the bank. He noted that Phelps-Davis is a practicing attorney, who could afford to travel to spread the church's message.
"Rebekah Phelps-Davis has $306? She must be using Priceline.com. It doesn't make any sense," Trebilcock said.
The attorney had urged jurors to award damages that would send a message to the church: "Do not bring your circus of hate to Maryland again."
Trebilcock later called the verdict "Judgment Day for the Westboro Baptist Church."
"They're always talking about other people's Judgment Day. Well, this is theirs," he said.
Snyder sobbed when he heard the verdict, while members of the church greeted the news with tightlipped smiles.
They are confident the award will be overturned on appeal, Phelps said.
"Oh, it will take about five minutes to get that thing reversed," he said.
Another of Snyder's attorneys, Sean Summers, said he would tirelessly seek payment of the award. "We will chase them forever if it takes that long," he said.
A number of states have passed laws regarding funeral protests, and Congress has passed a law prohibiting such protests at federal cemeteries. Snyder's lawsuit is believed to be the first filed by the family of a fallen serviceman.
(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)
Westboro Baptist Church has protested at several military funerals in Kentucky.