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Justices to hear case over protests at military funerals

By Bill Mears, CNN Supreme Court Producer
A member of the Westboro Baptist Church protests outside a Veterans Affairs hospital in Maywood, Illinois, in 2006.
A member of the Westboro Baptist Church protests outside a Veterans Affairs hospital in Maywood, Illinois, in 2006.
  • High court accepts appeal from father of a U.S. Marine killed in Iraq
  • Kansas church led by Fred Phelps has protested at funerals of U.S. service members
  • Family won $5 million judgment against church, which lower courts overturned
  • At issue is balancing families' privacy rights and protesters' free speech rights

Washington (CNN) -- A small Kansas church that has gained nationwide attention for protesting loudly at funerals of U.S. service members will receive a Supreme Court hearing over free speech rights.

The justices Monday accepted an appeal from the father of a U.S. Marine killed in Iraq over efforts to keep members of the Topeka-based Westboro Baptist Church from demonstrating near memorial services and burials.

The Marine's family won a $5 million judgment from the protesters, which lower courts overturned.

The church, led by pastor Fred Phelps, said it believes God is punishing the United States for "the sin of homosexuality" through events such as soldiers' deaths.

Members have traveled the country, shouting at grieving family members at funerals and displaying such signs as "Thank God for Dead Soldiers" and "God Blew Up the Troops."

At issue is a balancing test between the privacy rights of grieving families and the free speech rights of demonstrators, however disturbing and provocative their message.

Several states have attempted to impose specific limits on when and where the church can protest.

Westboro members appeared outside the 2006 funeral for Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder in Westminster, Maryland, outside Baltimore.

A jury awarded Snyder's family $2.9 million in compensatory damages plus $8 million in punitive damages. Those damages later were reduced to $5 million. It was the first lawsuit against the church over the protests.

Snyder's father, Albert, testified his son was not gay, but church members said their broader message was aimed at the unspecified actions of the military and those who serve in it.

iReport: Westboro Baptist Church protest

The Supreme Court has never addressed the specific 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. But the high court has recognized the state's interest in protecting those from unwanted protests or communications while in their homes.

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 setting.

According to a legal brief it filed with the high court, church members believe it is their duty to protest at certain events, including funerals, to promote their religious message: "That God's promise of love and heaven for those who obey him in this life is counterbalanced by God's wrath and hell for those who do not obey him."

The congregation is made up mostly of Phelps and his family. The pastor has 13 children and at least 54 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. He described himself as an "old-time" gospel preacher in a CNN interview in 2006, saying, "You can't preach the Bible without preaching the hatred of God."

Church members have participated in hundreds of protests across the country.

In a separate appeal, the high court last year blocked Missouri's effort to enforce a specific law aimed at the Westboro church.

Phelps, his daughter Shirley Phelps-Roper and other church members protested near the August 2005 funeral of an Army soldier in St. Joseph, Missouri.

State lawmakers later passed the Spc. Edward Lee Myers Law, criminalizing picketing "in front or about" a funeral location or procession.