"By the court making this decision, they're not only telling me that they're
taking their side, but I have to pay them money to do this to more
soldiers and their families," said Albert Snyder, whose son, Lance Cpl.
Matthew Snyder, was killed in action in Iraq in 2006.
Members of the fundamentalist church based in Topeka, Kansas, appeared outside
Snyder's funeral in 2006 in Westminster, Maryland, carrying signs
reading "You're going to hell," "God hates you" and "Thank God for dead
Among the teachings of the church, which was founded in 1955 by pastor Fred Phelps, is the belief that God is punishing the
United States for "the sin of homosexuality" through events such as
Margie Phelps, the daughter of Fred Phelps and the attorney representing the church in its appeals, also said the money
that the church receives from Snyder will be used to finance
demonstrations. But she also said that the order was a consequence of
his decision to sue the church over the demonstration.
"Mr. Snyder and his attorneys have engaged the legal system; there are some
rules to that legal engagement," said Phelps, a member of Westboro who
says she has participated in more than 150 protests of military
"They wanted to shut down the picketing so now they're going to finance it," she said.
The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday ordered that Snyder pay more than $16,000 in costs requested
by Westboro for copies of motions, briefs and appendices, according to
In a motion filed in October, Snyder's lawyer, who is representing him for free, asked the court to dismiss the bill of
costs, or, alternatively, reduce the 50-cent fee per page or charge
Snyder only for copies that were necessary to make their arguments on
"We objected based upon ability to pay and the fairness of the situation," Sean Summers said.
The mostly pro-forma ruling is the latest chapter in an ongoing legal saga that pits privacy rights
of grieving families against the free speech rights of demonstrators,
however disturbing and provocative their message.
Snyder's family sued the church and went to trial in 2007 alleging privacy invasion,
intentional infliction of emotional distress and civil conspiracy. A
jury awarded the family $2.9 million in compensatory damages plus $8
million in punitive damages, which were reduced to $5 million.
Westboro in 2008 appealed the case to the 4th District, which reversed the
judgments a year later, siding with the church's claims that its First
Amendment rights had been violated.
"The protest was confined to a public area under supervision and regulation of local law enforcement
and did not disrupt the church service," the circuit court opinion said.
"Although reasonable people may disagree about the appropriateness of
the Phelps' protest, this conduct simply does not satisfy the heavy
burden required for the tort of intentional infliction of emotional
distress under Maryland law."
The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case to address issues of laws designed to protect the
"sanctity and dignity of memorial and funeral services" as well as the
privacy of family and friends of the deceased.
The justices will be asked to address how far states and private entities such as
cemeteries and churches can go to justify picket-free zones and the use
of "floating buffers" to silence or restrict speech or movements of
demonstrators exercising their constitutional rights in a funeral
Both Phelps and Snyder's attorney said they were surprised that the 4th District chose to weigh in on the issue of legal costs when they could have waited until after the Supreme Court hearing.
Phelps believes the ruling bodes well for her side.
"It is a good harbinger of the fact that the Supreme Court will remind this
nation that you don't have mob rule. The fact that so many people hate
these words does not mean you can silence or penalize them. That's
supposed to be the great liberty that we congratulate ourselves on
protecting in this nation. We strut all around the world forcing people
to give all the liberties we supposedly have," she said.
Phelps anticipated that a Supreme Court ruling in the church's favor would be
unpopular, but she said Westboro's members viewed the potential outcome
in Biblical terms.
"When the Supreme Court unanimously upholds the 4th Circuit, it's going to put this country in a rage, and we will
be expelled," she said. "But whenever it was time for an epic event in
the Bible, the thing that happened right before is the prophets were
removed from the land, and that's what's going to happen to us. ...
We're going to sprint to the end of this race."
Snyder claims he is unable to pay any legal costs in the case and is attempting to raise
funds on his son's site, http://www.matthewsnyder.org/. He is equally optimistic
that he will prevail before the Supreme Court.