BALTIMORE — Leading constitutional scholars say the multimillion-dollar award this week to the father of a Marine killed in Iraq is likely to be overturned because the church members who protested his son’s funeral enjoy broad protection under the 1st Amendment.
Wednesday, a jury in U.S. District Court in Baltimore found in favor of Albert Snyder, the Marine’s father, after deliberating for about nine hours over two days.
Jurors unanimously agreed that the Snyders’ privacy had been breached by the Westboro Baptist Church, a family-based conservative religious group that assembled on public property near the funeral motorcade. As mourners for Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder drove by March 10, 2006, members of the fundamentalist Christian church based in Topeka, Kan., held up signs reading such things as “Thank God for dead soldiers.”
The $10.9-million verdict marked the first successful civil claim against Westboro, whose congregants have picketed with anti-gay placards at military funerals across the United States.
Experts on the 1st Amendment expressed doubt that the verdict and sizable damage award against Westboro would survive appellate review before the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va.
“I have spoken to a number of 1st Amendment attorneys today, and every one of them believe the case will be reversed and should be reversed,” said Ronald K.L. Collins, a scholar at the First Amendment Center in Washington.
In contentious rallies, Westboro members regularly preach that tragic losses of life, from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, represent moral payback for the general acceptance of homosexuality in U.S. society.
Three adults and four children from the group picketed at Lance Cpl. Snyder’s funeral at St. John Roman Catholic Church in Westminster, Md.
Westboro members insisted that their demonstration, about 1,000 feet from the Westminster church, took place legally. Albert Snyder, who lives in York, Pa., argued that news of the protest — he did not see the demonstrators’ message boards on the day of the funeral — deeply disturbed him and exacerbated his depression over the loss of his only son.
Westboro members have 10 business days to ask the federal judge who oversaw the case to review the verdict and damage award. Afterward, according to attorneys, they have 30 days to decide whether to appeal. Unless they can post a bond worth 120% of the award, they must secure a judge’s order to stave off payment to Snyder, according to his attorney.
Jonathan Katz, an attorney for the church and its founder, said he planned to ask U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett to suspend the judgment while his clients appeal.
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