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Judge cuts court award

The Baltimore Sun

A federal judge in Baltimore substantially reduced yesterday the amount of damages a Kansas-based anti-gay group and three of its leading members must pay for their protest at a Marine's funeral in Westminster.

In a 52-page decision, U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett affirmed the jury's verdict in favor of the father of Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder. Albert Snyder successfully sued the church for emotional distress and invasion of his family's privacy after Westboro Baptist Church members waved signs decrying homosexuality at his son's funeral in March 2006.

"There was more than sufficient evidence to support the jury's verdict that [Westboro's] conduct before, during and after the funeral of Matthew Snyder was outrageous ... [and] highly offensive to a reasonable person," Bennett wrote.

But the judge also more than halved the $10.9 million award announced in October to $5 million, noting constitutional concerns of appropriateness. He held up the jury's compensatory damage award of $2.9 million but reduced the total punitive damages to $2.1 million.

Bennett cited Supreme Court precedent requiring the judge to weigh the nature of the harm suffered by Snyder against the financial resources of Westboro and its members to finance a large damage award.

A pending appeal before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit by Westboro to overturn the verdict remains in limbo. First, Bennett, the trial judge, must decide how much of a bond the church and its members will have to post while the appeal continues. Church members have argued that they should not be required to post a bond during the appeals process.

A hearing on the issue is scheduled for March 6, according to one of the defendants, Shirley Phelps-Roper.

Westboro church members say they believe soldiers are being killed in Iraq and Afghanistan as punishment for what they say is the nation's tolerance of homosexuality. There was no evidence that Westboro members targeted the Marine's funeral because they believed he was gay.

Still, the Phelps family argued during the trial that their often incendiary protests should be allowed under the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of speech and religion.

Bennett largely rejected that argument, saying, "Quite simply, the Supreme Court has recognized that there is not an absolute First Amendment right for any and all speech directed by private individuals against other private individuals."

Made up almost entirely of relatives of its founder, Fred Phelps Sr., the fire-and-brimstone Christian group, based in Topeka, has protested military funerals across the country with placards bearing shock-value messages such as "Thank God for dead soldiers."

Most recently, they announced they would appear at services for deceased Hollywood actor Heath Ledger, who starred in the film Brokeback Mountain, a gay love story.

Several leading constitutional scholars say they believe that Westboro has a good chance of overturning the verdict on appeal based on broad First Amendment protections.

But in his decision yesterday, Bennett stood firm.

"Defendants cannot by their own actions transform a private funeral into a public event and then bootstrap their position by arguing that Matthew Snyder was a public figure," the judge wrote.

Bennett also took time in his decision to quote extensively the courtroom account given by Albert Snyder at the trial.

"He testified that Defendants placed a 'bug' in his head. ... such that he is unable to separate thoughts of his son from the Defendant's actions: "there are nights that I just, you know, I try to think of my son at times and every time I think of my son or pass his picture handing on the wall or see the medals handing on the wall that he received from the [Marine Corps], I see those signs."

Church leaders argued in court papers that the jury did not take into account their net worth when it imposed an award of more than 10 times their financial holdings.

"The First Amendment prohibits this action from going forward," Shirley Phelps-Roper said yesterday. "It always has and it always will. You can rebel against that law, but that's why we have appeals courts. So we're off and running."

Lawyers for the Marine's father say they believe the church should be ordered to pay the award immediately or post a bond to secure the judgment during the appeals process. They added that they have evidence produced during discovery for the trial that Westboro members did not tell the truth about their assets.

"Based on the case law, the reduction in the award does not surprise us," Snyder's attorney Sean Summers said yesterday. "But we're very pleased with the decision to uphold the jury's verdict."

matthew.dolan@baltsun.com

online

Read the judge's written opinion at baltimoresun.com/westboro

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