Does the first amendment extend to protests at soldiers' funerals?

By Brooke Kelley - bio | email

SAVANNAH, GA (WTOC) - Do first amendment rights extend to protests at soldiers funerals?

That right at the heart of one of the most controversial cases that's come before the U.S. Supreme Court.

This case pits a grieving father who lost his son in Iraq against a Kansas Church that protested outside his son's funeral. They were protesting against gays and immorality, even though that soldier was not gay.

Church members believe the military deaths are god's way of punishing America for tolerating homosexuality and they believe these protests are protected by the first amendment.

WTOC spoke to Chatham County Veterans Council and Lawyer Doug Andrews about the controversial issue.

It all started back in 2006 when Westboro Baptist Church members protested outside the funeral of Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder. Snyder was killed in Iraq, but church members picketed at the funeral not because of the mission in Iraq but because America isn't doing enough to punish homosexuals.

"They had signs that said God is glad soldiers are dead and such things as that. Mr. Snyder rightfully sued that church and its pastor for disrupting the funeral and causing distress which it would do. The jury agreed and awarded $11 million. The trial judge reduced it to $5 million," said Andrews.

On appeal the judgement was reversed on first amendment grounds the Snyder family appealed that decision and now it's in the hands of the Supreme Court to decided if hateful speech is protected.

Doug Andrews is a Savannah Attorney and a Veteran.

"Is that protecting the right of free speech or is there some balance to be given the circumstances in the content of that speech, that's the issue,"said Andrews.

Andrews says the church clearly is in the wrong.

"We have to remember a funeral is part of a religious ceremony as well. So they are exercising their right to mourn and grieve the loss of their fallen hero without interference by others,"said Andrews.

Andrews says what this church is doing is an insult to all military families.

"To have some wacko say that his service to his country meant nothing that it wasn't battle related that it was simply god's smiting America because it hasn't adequately punished homosexuality that is so harmful to the parents core values and the marine core values that it just shocks the conscious," said Andrews.

Andrews says, thankfully military families in our area who are grieving have support from the patriot guard to help keep protesters away.

"They have kept these protestors from breaking the line or getting in ear shot or eye sight of the family. they are to be commended for their service. So with military honors someone can be buried with respect to not only the fallen hero but the grieving family,"said Andrews.

Andrews says he's confident the supreme court will make the right decision.

Andrews says with a controversial case like this one it is most likely will be next Spring before the Supreme Court makes a decision.

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