A father's war against Westboro

If I never had to read another story about the Westboro Baptist Church and its "staged-for-media hatefests" -- as Tmatt so aptly described the congregation's protests last month -- I just might make my own sign. "Thank God for small blessings," it would read. Or something like that. But the U.S. Supreme Court's March 8 decision to review whether the First Amendment protects anti-gay protests at soldiers' funerals pushed Westboro back into the news. Then late last month, Westboro made headlines again when an appeals court ordered a dead Marine's father to pay $16,15o in court costs to church leader Fred Phelps. Insert collective groans -- or at least my personal groans -- here. So, when I came across an Associated Press piece tied to Westboro this week, I was prepared not to like it. Instead, I found it truly compelling.

Here's the top of the story:

YORK, Pa. -- Some nights Albert Snyder wakes up at 3 a.m. Other nights he doesn't sleep at all, tormented by thoughts of the hateful signs carried by a fundamentalist church outside his Marine son's funeral.

"Thank God for Dead Soldiers."

"You're Going to Hell."

"Semper Fi Fags."

Hundreds of grieving families have been targeted by the Westboro Baptist Church, which believes military deaths are the work of a wrathful God who punishes the United States for tolerating homosexuality.

Most mourners try to ignore the taunts. But Snyder couldn't let it go. He became the first to sue the church to halt the demonstrations, and he's pursued the group farther than anyone else.

While your GetReligionistas often complain about the use of the term "fundamentalist," it seems to fit in this case -- and actually may not go far enough in describing just how far right this group falls. Personally, I preferred the way the New York Daily News put it in the lede of a recent story, referring to Westboro as a "bizarre church" But I don't suppose an AP writer could get away with such a characterization -- no matter how true. And in all seriousness, we probably don't want MSM reporters deciding what's bizarre and what's not. But I digress.

The AP story noted:

Lance Cpl. Matthew A. Snyder, 20, was not gay. But for the Westboro church, any dead soldier is fair game.

This was not the first substantive profile of Albert Snyder and his battle against Westboro. The Baltimore Sun beat AP to the punch with a 2,250-word story on Snyder that provided excellent insight into the grieving father's plight and telling details about Westboro's tactics, such as this gripping section:

The military took care of the funeral details, and Snyder thought he had already endured the worst, losing his son.

He had no idea what to think when the Westboro Baptist Church issued a news release March 8, 2006, saying that Matthew "died in shame, not honor -- for a fag nation cursed by God" and that they planned to bring their anti-gay gospel to the funeral at "St. John's Catholic dog kennel."

Snyder had never heard of these people, but officials had. They sent state and county police to the funeral, along with an ambulance, a fire truck and even a mobile command center.

The windows were blocked at the Catholic school next door and a SWAT team was placed inside the church, mixed in with hundreds of mourners.

"I had no idea they would be as disgusting as they were," Snyder said.

While the Sun did a nice job, the AP took the report to a higher level journalistically -- and in about half as much space. Not only does the AP story put a real human face on the plaintiff in the Supreme Court case, but it also frames the constitutional issues in an extraordinary way. It raises the possibility -- farfetched as it might seem to many -- that the law may favor Westboro. And therein lies the rub.

On the plaintiff's side, there's this:

As Snyder sees it, Westboro isn't engaging in constitutionally protected speech when it pickets funerals. He argues that Phelps and his followers are disrupting private assemblies and harassing people at their most vulnerable -- behavior that's an incitement to violence.

"This is more than free speech. This is like yelling, 'Fire!' in a crowded theater. Somebody's going to get hurt," Snyder said, his voice rising and eyes welling with tears.

On the Westboro side, there's this:

Not everyone is on Snyder's side, even if they find Westboro's protests loathsome.

They point to the undisputed facts of the case. Westboro contacted police before its protest, which was conducted in a designated area on public land -- 1,000 feet from the church where the Mass was held in Westminster, Md.

The protesters -- Phelps and six family members -- broke no laws. Snyder knew they were present, but he did not see their signs or hear their statements until he turned on the news at his son's wake.

Jonathan M. Turley, a George Washington University law professor, asked his constitutional law class to grapple with the case. At first, the entire class was sympathetic to Snyder. But after they dug deeper, they concluded that Westboro's speech was protected by the First Amendment.

I do wish the AP story had taken a sentence or two to make it clear that Westboro is an independent congregation with no ties to the Southern Baptist Convention or the nation's other Baptist conventions and networks. But overall, AP deserves praise for a well-written report that manages to balance the father's personal story, the court case background and the pending Supreme Court arguments in a balanced, nuanced way.

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