BALTIMORE, Oct. 25 — Before the March 2006 funeral for Lance Cpl. Matthew A. Snyder, a marine who was killed in Iraq, protesters from the Westboro Baptist Church, a tiny fundamentalist splinter group, picketed the service with signs that read “God Hates You” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.”
Albert Snyder, Corporal Snyder’s father, sued the church in United States District Court here, claiming invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
The Westboro protesters, whose church is in Topeka, Kan., frequently picket the funerals of military officials and soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan because church leaders assert that God is killing soldiers to punish America for condoning homosexuality. The lawsuit, which is being tried in Baltimore, is believed to be the first against the church by the family of a fallen serviceman.
Mr. Snyder, who said Westboro members turned his son’s funeral in Westminster, Md., into a “media circus,” is seeking unspecified damages in the jury trial, which is expected to end next week. In opening statements, his lawyer said church members had shown no regret for the protest, which he said had left Mr. Snyder with depression and health complications from diabetes.
“They wanted their message heard, and they didn’t care who they stepped over,” Mr. Snyder testified Wednesday, according to The Associated Press. “My son should have been buried with dignity, not with a bunch of clowns outside.”
Experts say the case is a test of the limits of free speech.
Similar demonstrations by Westboro Baptist Church members have prompted several states, including Maryland, to establish limits on funeral protests.
Ronald K. L. Collins, a scholar at the First Amendment Center in Washington, said such restrictions pose certain dangers, however. “The dangerous principle here is runaway liability in a way that would put the First Amendment in serious jeopardy,” Mr. Collins said. “I dread to think what it would do to political protests in this country if it were allowed the win.”
Judge Richard D. Bennett, who is hearing the case, told the nine jurors that there are limits on free speech protection, listing categories that include vulgar, offensive and shocking statements, and instructed jurors to decide “whether the defendant’s actions would be highly offensive to a reasonable person, whether they were extreme and outrageous, and whether these actions were so offensive and shocking as to not be entitled to First Amendment protection,” according to The A.P.
The church has about 60 members, most of them related to its founder, the Rev. Fred Phelps.
One of Mr. Phelps’s 13 children, Shirley Phelps-Roper, a defendant in the case who was one of the protesters at Corporal Snyder’s funeral, testified Thursday that she had never met Corporal Snyder and that she would not apologize for the demonstration.
“We preach to the living to connect the dots to the parents of the dead child,” Ms. Phelps-Roper testified. “He’s fighting for a nation who has made God a No. 1 enemy.”