Dead soldiers and religious freedom

Not that I want to encourage more coverage of Westboro Baptist Church, but this was worth bringing up.

Westboro -- you probably know them as the proprietor of -- got a lot of attention this weekend on two separate though related fronts (and on a third one tmatt discussed yesterday). What's surprising is which of the main two stories got more play.

The big news was that Westboro's angry band of picketers traveled from Kansas to New York to protest outside a Brooklyn high school and then a Long Island synagogue. "Hate-mongering Kansans begin their assault on NY Jews" was the headline from the New York Post. Newsday offered a little more about the Great Neck protest:

The Westboro demonstrators carried signs declaring "God Hates Jews," "America is Doomed," "God is Your Enemy," and others using a derogatory term for homosexuals. They also sang songs and shouted at protesters and passing motorists.

What I couldn't figure out was why Westboro was picketing Jews. (Rabbi Bradley Hirschfield takes a stab.) Seems like an unusual combination of democratic tools for social change and medieval attempts at religious coercion. But the articles didn't really address that. It's not important. This wasn't the important news concerning Westboro.

What was -- and was much harder to find coverage of outside of Kansas and this brief in The New York Times -- was an appellate court ruling that Westboro's practices of offensive picketing is constitutionally protected. The locus quo was a soldier's funeral, the saga of which Daniel Pulliam discussed last year. Now, the news from the Topeka Capitol-Journal:

A federal appeals court on Thursday favored civil rights over popularity when it reversed a civil lawsuit won by the father of a fallen U.S. Marine against members of Westboro Baptist Church.

A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., ruled that protest signs carried by church members in March 2006 outside the funeral of Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder in Westminster, Md., were protected by the First Amendment.

With that, the $5 million judgment and lien on the church's building and law firm in Topeka have been dismissed.

Calling from New York City where she was protesting at the United Nations building, church spokeswoman Shirley Phelps-Roper said she was happy Albert Snyder, the Marine's father, had filed the lawsuit.

"If he hadn't put us on trial, we wouldn't have exploded around the world," she said of the media exposure.

That is, sadly, quite true. This also might earn Westboro the immortality of a lawschool casebook. But why, for what seems like such a significant ruling, was there so little coverage?

RNS filed a shorty, and the Associated Baptist Press covered the boilerplate and Westboro background and picked out this choice quote from the appellate court:

Paraphrasing a ruling in another case invoking the First Amendment, the court said judges defending the Constitution "must sometimes share their foxhole with scoundrels of every sort, but to abandon the post because of the poor company is to sell freedom cheaply."

The Baltimore Sun, the Snyder's local paper, played this story surprisingly straight, reporting on the ruling, quoting Westboro, quoting the Snyder's attorney, who plans to appeal, and then closing with this quote from Margie Jean Phelps, a Westboro attorney and daughter of founder Fred Phelps:

"The amount was set with a goal, and the goal was to silence us," said Margie Jean Phelps. "In this country, you don't get to claim damage over words you don't agree with. ... Because we've trained a nation of crybabies doesn't mean we change the law."

What I don't understand from the coverage is why this is an appropriate means of religious communication. The court only ruled that it was legal. But is it expedient?

It seems to me that a disservice is being done when journalists write Westboro off as a bunch of wacky fundamentalists without digging through the noise of their offensiveness to identify the elements of their basic approach that also bear scrutiny. So Westboroites believe God is sending home dead soldiers to punish Americans for accepting homosexuality (and Jews) -- how in the world do they get from this belief to religious obligation that they share it at funerals?

To me, the issue doesn't seem to be so much religious as it is free speech shrouded in the double protection of speech and religion. If both are essential, OK. But how about asking why.

The above clip from "Hannity & Colmes" is painful, and the Westboro Baptist comments thanking God for 9/11 and dead soldiers only make it more so.

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