The father of a Westminster Marine whose funeral was picketed by an anti-gay group is accusing its members of defaming him, invading the family's privacy and intentionally inflicting emotional distress, in the first individual lawsuit brought against the Kansas organization for its protests at these ceremonies.
Albert Snyder of York, Pa., is seeking unspecified damages against Westboro Baptist Church for its "intentional and outrageous" conduct during and since services were held for his son, Lance Cpl. Matthew A. Snyder, according to court papers filed yesterday in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt.
Matthew Snyder, 20, was killed in a noncombat vehicle accident in the Al Anbar Province of Iraq in March - one month after arriving in the country. A 2003 graduate of Westminster High School, he was assigned to Combat Service Support Group-1, 1st Marine Logistics Group, 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, based at Twentynine Palms, Calif.
Albert Snyder "wants to deter this group of people from these disruptive and mean-spirited protests at the funerals of deceased members of the military," said Craig Trebilcock, a York attorney representing Snyder.
Shirley Phelps-Roper, an attorney and church member, whose father, Fred Phelps, helped establish Westboro in 1955, said yesterday that the church would countersue "for conspiracy to violate civil rights and violation of civil rights."
"If they think that coming after us is going to fix this, they are sadly mistaken," said Phelps-Roper, who is licensed to practice law in Kansas and before the U.S. Supreme Court. "We were seven people exercising protected rights of speech and religion."
The church's protests have prompted 22 states to enact or propose laws to limit the rights of protesters at funerals. Last month, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. signed a bill that prohibits people from picketing within 100 feet of a funeral, memorial, burial or procession.
Westboro Baptist - which has about 75 members, roughly 80 percent of whom are relatives by blood or marriage - protests at funerals without regard to the presumed sexual orientation of the soldier, Phelps-Roper said.
The group also blames disasters - such as Hurricane Katrina, the Sept. 11 attacks and AIDS - on what it views as this country's permissive morals in violation of biblical dictates.
Phelps-Roper said the group has led 22,000 demonstrations since 1991 at parades, funerals and other events but only recently started picketing at funerals.
Seven people - three adults and four children - marched on public city property outside Snyder's funeral Mar. 10 at St. John Roman Catholic Church in Westminster, waving placards declaring such messages as "Thank God for dead soldiers."
The group also has posted comments about Snyder and his family on its Web site, such as, "Albert and Julie ... taught Matthew to defy his creator, to divorce, and to commit adultery. They taught him how to support the largest pedophile machine in the history of the entire world, the Roman Catholic monstrosity," according to the 10-page lawsuit, which names Fred W. Phelps Sr., its members and the church corporation.
Michele Earl-Hubbard, a Seattle attorney who specializes in First Amendment cases, said such lawsuits are difficult to win.
"The law doesn't penalize unpleasant speech," she said.
Earl-Hubbard said that to win the defamation claim, Snyder must prove that the group's statements were false and changed people's views of the family.
She said it is likely that people are more sympathetic to the Snyders because they don't believe there is any truth to Westboro's statements about Matthew Snyder or the family.
David Rocah, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, agreed that Snyder's lawsuit might be hard to win because "no one takes Westboro Baptist Church seriously."
"One can't criticize the father, you understand his pain. But that doesn't mean the various legal assertions are viable grounds for a lawsuit," said Rocah, who added that the ACLU does not condone Westboro's activities.