Faith

Westboro Wins in Court: Why That’s a Good Thing

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The Supreme Court tossed an $11 million lawsuit against the controversial Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church Wednesday, upholding the church’s right to picket and protest outside military funerals.

The suit had been brought by a Pennsylvania father whose son died in Iraq. Though protestors had been kept at least 200 feet from the funeral procession, the father saw a posting on the church’s website “that scorned him and said he had raised his son to serve the devil.”

That was the primary cause for the lawsuit, not the generic protest outside the funeral itself, during which church members wave signs with messages like, “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.” They also display messages that “God Hates” Homosexuals, using the three-letter F-word slur. Those messages don’t refer to the soldier who died; the church’s expressed position is that that the deaths are God’s punishment for our society as a whole being tolerant of homosexuality.

Unfortunately, the lawyers for the father didn’t mention the website posting when they presented their case to the Supreme Court, choosing to focus instead on the picketing. In an 8-to-1 decision, the Court ruled that picketing is protected speech.

The one dissenting opinion came from Justice Samuel Alito:

“Our profound national commitment to free and open debate is not a license for the vicious verbal assault that occurred in this case.”

Remember: the specific issue before the court was the picketing at the funeral itself, not the more personal attack the plaintiff says had been posted on the church’s site.

But here’s the problem with Alito’s position: who gets to decide what “viscous verbal assault” actually is, particularly when a church is involved? Is “Thank God for IEDs,” a reference to improvised explosive devices, which have claimed the lives of many Americans and Iraqis, “vicious,” or is it just in unimaginably poor taste?

What would be to stop anyone who isn’t religious, or is particularly anti-religious, to claim that any expression of a religious opinion would be a “vicious” verbal assault?

That church, as much as I and every other Christian I know happen to disagree with its members, still has a right to free speech, particularly during a generic public protest. (The web issue that attacked private individuals shouldn’t be allowed from anyone, but that’s not the issue here.)

The tragedy here isn’t in the court’s verdict itself, or in the fact that our Constitution protects such speech.

The real tragedy comes when Christians who worship the God who sent His Son to die on a cross for everyone — even those who reject Him or even those who completely misrepresent His love for all men — watched such protests and failed to exercise their own free speech to denounce that view as being inconsistent with the Loving God they worship.

the authorPatrick
Patrick is a Christian with more than 30 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.

2 Comments

  • There's a certain amount of irony in the fact that these nutjobs stand next to soldiers' funerals with "Thank God for dead soldiers" signs and then defend their actions on the grounds of free speech. Whom do they think they can thank for that right in the first place?

    Besides, I am not sure the concept of free speech is really a valid excuse here. When the Bill of Rights was written, they were probably more concerned about guaranteeing the public's right to criticize its political leadership and to partake in civil discourse, rather than protecting people's right to behave like assholes. Free speech isn't a carte blanc to pull all the stops between your brain and your mouth.

    I just don't agree with your definition of a "generic public protest." The Tea Party shouting matches are public protests; standing next to the funeral procession of a private individual is not a generic public protest, it's a personal assault.

    • It’s a general public protest because the protestors generally aren't remotely concerned about who died; that is to say, these people aren't trying to target specifically homosexual soldiers who were killed in the line of duty.

      They're also obeying the law in terms of keeping the specified distance that local laws require, so that they can make their point about the dangers of accepting homosexuality into our culture. While they may claim that God is killing our soldiers because some people in our society are more accepting of homosexuality than others, they also claim that all of us, not just soldiers, are “doomed” because our society as a whole is drifting away from God.

      So the funeral just provides a convenient location more than anything else. The target of the message is the public in general, not military families.

      On an unrelated note, I don't know exactly what their position is on salvation: I've never once heard them mention Jesus Christ o. Perhaps their bibles don't include the New Testament?

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