Jury Awards Father $11 Million In Damages For Church's Protest At Son's Military Funeral

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.

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  • by whitebass Location: richmond on Nov 4, 2007 at 08:53 AM
    Every time I see those fools on T.V. they have Law Enforcement officers protecting them. If I was in charge of the Law enforcement agency in what every area they were protesting in, my Officers would be calling in sick, so the local citizens could open a can of whoop*** on the idiots.
  • by parent Location: ky. on Nov 3, 2007 at 11:08 AM
    You should pray for understanding in situations and not make a greiving familys worst moment even more unbearable. God does not teach hate. This young man died for the freedom of this country and his funeral should not have been such a mochery. This family should have been allowed to greive in peace.
  • by c Location: fkt on Nov 3, 2007 at 06:27 AM
    This is not a church, it's a bunch of religious idiots who have been brainwashed by yet another religious jerk! Look out Jim Jones, you got company! I'm thrilled about this judgement against these so called believers! I think KY needs to get off their butts and pass a law forbidding them from protesting funerals here! I also think the the IRS needs to revoke their taxfree status! If they are protesting instead of preaching then they should have to pay taxes! The rest of the families whom they have protested should file suit against them as well! Take their money and they won't have enough to travel to protest anymore! Religious freedom is one thing, but being a nuisance is another! Too much is done under "religious freedom" these days! Forcing your beliefs on someone else is NOT the church's job! You are to tell others about Jesus and let HIM handle the rest, not YOU! If God judges that's His business, He doesn't need you doing it for Him!
  • by Bryan Location: Frankfort on Nov 3, 2007 at 01:56 AM
  • by J Location: Kentucky on Nov 2, 2007 at 10:00 AM
    I have never heard of anything more ridiculous in my life! What kind of "church" teaches this? How could you hold up signs like that at a funeral? That is awful! The soldier's deaths are a punishment for homosexuality? What kind of warped thinking is that? I can say one thing on this..my father is an 85 year old WWII veteran and if a bunch showed up at his funeral holding signs like that, let's just say it would not turn out well!!!
  • by Carol Location: Belcher, Ky on Nov 2, 2007 at 06:10 AM
    I think Ky should have a law against protestors at any funeral.This is a hard time for the families of the Brave soldiers.They are there protecting people like you and I and also people like the protestors.. God will judge them for their actions. But they should respect the privacy if the families.
  • by Diane on Nov 1, 2007 at 02:35 PM
    I may believe homosexuality is wrong. I may also believe our country may be judged for it . BUT how can any Christian put the sins of a nation on one person???? King David, in the bible, did not take revenge on Saul for his disobedience against God. He let God make that call. In fact he mourned Saul at his death as well as his Son Johnathan. This church could not have gotten the idea to harass mourning families from the Bible. I would have to say it was their vain attempt to establish themselves as more moral. They failed miserably.
  • by richard Location: lexington on Nov 1, 2007 at 02:29 PM
    I wish it had been 11 billion..if these people believe God thinks the way they do, they are some very sick people.
  • by Peggy Location: Ky on Nov 1, 2007 at 02:13 PM
    I'm glad the father won this case,whether he gets the money or not.These idiots protesting a soldier's funeral is disgusting!They need to get the message loud and clear that what they're doing is NOT what God wants,is illegal,and what gave them the idea this soldier was gay?Most people have enough common sense to know that God doesn't hate anyone.He sent his son to die for ALL,no matter what their lifestyle is.What kind of sick mind prints posters stating 'thank God for dead soldiers'?What warped people!This kind of so-called protest is going WAY OVER THE LINE of freedom of speech.
  • by LILLY Location: MUDLICK on Nov 1, 2007 at 01:25 PM
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