Anti-Gay Westboro Baptist Church Wins Free Speech Case

Extremism in the Courts

In a case that tested the limits of the First Amendment, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 8-1 that the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC), a vicious anti-gay hate group, was entitled to continue its practice of picketing funerals, school plays and other public events with signs that read, among other things, "Thank God for AIDS" and "God hates fags."

"Speech is powerful. It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and — as it did here — inflict great pain," wrote Chief Justice John Roberts in the majority opinion. "On the facts before us, we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker. … As a nation we have chosen a different course — to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate."

Justice Samuel Alito dissented.

Shirley and Margie Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church
Women of Westboro: Shirley Phelps (far left) and her sister Margie Phelps, members of the Westboro Baptist Church, speak at one of hundreds of press conferences held to claim that God is killing U.S. soldiers because America is a "fag-enabling" nation.

The suit began in 2006, when the church picketed the funeral of Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder in Maryland. Snyder's father won a $5 million verdict against WBC, but the judgment was thrown out on appeal, a ruling that was affirmed by the Supreme Court's March ruling.

Founded by Fred Phelps and now led primarily by his daughter Shirley Phelps-Roper, WBC has been picketing since 1991 and began showing up at military funerals in 2005. The group says that God is punishing America for tolerating homosexuality and claims that God has chosen to use improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, to kill American soldiers because of an August 1995 attack on the WBC compound with a small explosive device.

Meanwhile, last Nov. 30, retired Sgt. Ryan Newell, a double-amputee who lost his legs to an IED, was arrested for stalking WBC. Police found his car packed with two handguns, an M4 assault rifle and 90 rounds of ammunition. Newell is charged with felony conspiracy to commit aggravated battery against WBC's leadership.

Westboro Baptist picket

Other WBC opponents are turning to milder techniques to stop the group from spreading its message of hate. A group of hackers called "Anonymous" took WBC's website offline in late January. And counter-protesters have begun showing up at funerals that WBC says it will target, both to protect the privacy of mourners and to drive the Phelps clan away.

Still, WBC is adept at getting in the last word. In exchange for canceling planned pickets of the funerals for victims of Jared Loughner, who shot U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in January, the group bartered for airtime on two radio shows — one based in Phoenix, the other Mike Gallagher's syndicated program. Gallagher has in the past offered similar deals: In 2006, the group called off its planned appearance at the funerals of five Amish girls shot to death in their school in return for time on his show. The next year, WBC canceled plans to picket the funerals of people killed in the Virginia Tech shooting spree in return for three hours of airtime.

"Make no mistake about it," Gallagher said recently in defense of his highly controversial offers. "I have only one goal, and that is to keep the Phelpses from picketing."