BALTIMORE – Albert Snyder removed his glasses and sobbed Tuesday as he watched a video showing the signs that were displayed at the funeral of his 20-year-old son, Matthew.
“Thank God for dead soldiers,” and “You’re going to hell,” two of them read. They were the work of members of Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, which routinely pickets military funerals.
In a somber courtroom in Baltimore, jurors heard emotional closing arguments Tuesday before beginning to deliberate whether to award Albert Snyder financial damages. The jury will continue deliberating this morning. Snyder contends that church members invaded his privacy and caused him severe emotional distress. His lawyers said he couldn’t grieve properly and became depressed after protesters showed up at his son’s funeral in Maryland in March 2006.
“You can punish them for what they did,” Sean Summers, Snyder’s attorney, told the nine jurors. Snyder is seeking an unspecified amount of compensatory and punitive damages.
Summers said the behavior of the Fred Phelps Sr. family, which founded the fundamentalist evangelical church, is “offensive, shocking, extreme and outrageous in any context, but especially at a funeral.” He described them as a “71-person cult” that terrorized the Snyder family.
Jonathan Katz, an attorney for the Phelpses, said the funeral was a public event. He reminded jurors that the First Amendment protects unpopular speech and religious groups.
“If they’re not permitted to have their views, where’s it stop?” he asked.
The Phelpses said they protested at Snyder’s funeral because he was a member of the military, defending a country that they said has institutionalized sodomy. Church members preach an anti-gay message, saying homosexuals will go to hell because they’re not following the word of God. They referred to the Roman Catholic Church, of which the Snyders are members, as a “pedophile machine.”
Katz noted that Snyder had given media interviews regarding his son’s death and the funeral procession route included supportive schoolchildren. He said there was a “competition for the cameras,” adding: “This is a media event. This is a very public funeral.”
The Phelpses have picketed at more than 30,000 events in the last 17 years. The Snyder case marks the first lawsuit involving their activities at a military funeral to go to trial.