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Wednesday, April 7, 2010 as of 11:14 AM ET

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Lee Ross

Supreme Court

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High Court Takes Funeral Protest Case

March 8, 2010 - 11:30 AM | by: Lee Ross

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court announced Monday that it will give further consideration to three cases including one that involves the rights of a man to protest at a fallen Marine’s funeral.

The facts of the case are largely undisputed and revolve around the March 2006 funeral of Marine Lance Corporal Matthew A. Snyder who was killed in the line of duty in Iraq. In the eyes of his father, Albert Snyder, a quiet day of private grief turned into a “circus-like atmosphere” because of the protests that had nothing to do with the Snyder family.

Snyder’s burial service took place at a church in his hometown Westminster, Maryland. In addition to the family and friends who gathered to mourn, Fred Phelps of Topeka, Kansas attended the service to protest. Phelps and his associates were at this time making regular appearances at military funerals to protest what they believe is an overly tolerant attitude towards homosexuality by the United States government and the military.

At the Snyder funeral, Phelps, the founder of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka and others from his congregation–all relatives–held a variety of protest signs. Some read “God Hates the USA” and “America is doomed.” In advance of the funeral, Phelps sent out press releases to news organizations promoting the protest. Albert Snyder saw the signs on a television report about the funeral protest.

Snyder sued Phelps for the trauma of that day and was very emotional in the court at times breaking down in tears. He testified that “for the rest of my life, I will remember what they did to me and it has tarnished the memory of my son’s last hour on earth.” A jury convicted Phelps who was ordered to pay $5 million in damages.

The Fourth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals overturned the ruling concluded that the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech protects the protestors. Even though the court found the signs “distasteful and repugnant” it concluded that “no reasonable reader could interpret any of these signs as asserting actual and objectively verifiable facts about Snyder or his son.”

In their appeal to the high court, lawyers for Snyder argue the “the Fourth Circuit necessarily determined that the freedom of religion and peaceful assembly is subordinate to freedom of speech. The Fourth Circuit chose one individual’s First Amendment rights over those of another.”

In the other two cases granted further consideration by the Court, the justices will hear a dispute over the background checks NASA does for some of its contract workers. Also, whether a part of the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act expressly preempts some claims against vaccine manufacturers “if the injury or death resulted from side effects that were unavoidable even though the vaccine was properly prepared and was accompanied by proper directions and warnings.”

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