State

Church will let nothing halt its hateful antics

There's not a lot of common ground between Michelle Malkin and Bill O'Reilly and me, but here is something we all agree on: The antics of Westboro Baptist Church have offended far too many grieving families, and the man who is trying to stop them in federal court deserves our support.

By now you've probably gotten your fill of this loony church led by the Rev. Fred Phelps. Hailing from Topeka, Kan., they travel the country to picket funerals with signs proclaiming, "God hates fags" and "Thank God for dead troops." Don't even attempt to follow the twisted logic, but they claim that the troops keep dying because of U.S. acceptance of homosexuality.

Albert Snyder, a grieving Pennsylvania father, certainly got his fill of the Westboro faithful, having to endure their antics at the 2006 funeral of his Marine son, Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder. He sued for defamation, for invasion of privacy and for intentional infliction of emotional distress, and won $5 million in damages, only to have that judgment overturned on appeal. Gallingly, the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals required Snyder to reimburse Phelps and fellow defendants $16,500 for legal expenses.

O'Reilly said he'd personally cover that bill. Malkin offered to raise funds, too, joining the outrage of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion.

Thanks, Bill, mighty generous of you. But keep the checkbook out. And don't go anywhere, Michelle. Every dime will be needed, because this first bill is a pittance compared with what could follow. An additional $96,740.21 in Phelps' court costs is pending before a district court. Get out the calculator: $36,180.28 for expert witnesses, $58,280.30 for miscellaneous costs, $13,900.06 for the court reporter, etc.

Snyder's pro bono legal staff (who have written off more than a half-million dollars in fees) is challenging the reasonableness of the larger tab.

Snyder has appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which has agreed to take the case. Cross your fingers that the district court doesn't order Snyder to pay these costs before the case proceeds.

The high court won't hear Snyder's original charge of defamation. A lower court threw that out, essentially saying Phelps and Co. propagate such outlandish claims that no one with any common sense would believe them anyway. So no harm is done.

Phelps' Westboro Baptist Church posted on a Web site that Synder and his former wife had "raised Matthew for the devil, taught Matthew to defy his creator and commit adultery, and taught him to be an idolater."

At trial, it was argued that Albert Snyder's existing diabetes and depression had worsened because of the protesters. And the bereaved father testified of his permanent emotional injuries, anger, tears and being upset to the point of vomiting.

The court presumably will weigh Phelps' church's rights under freedom of speech, which has offered them so much cover, to be balanced with Snyder's rights.

Before that happens, an additional $20,000 is needed for Snyder's pro bono lawyers to file briefs to the U.S. Supreme Court by the late May deadline.

So, the big question becomes: Is the cost worth it? I tend to believe it is not, despite the vile nature of Phelps' acts. Despite the further suffering his church inflicts on so many families who simply want to grieve the loss of their children. Snyder no doubt is suing out of genuine pain, but I believe he is taking a stand out of principle: He doesn't want others to suffer in the way he did. Problem is, it won't stop Phelps' circus.

Fred Phelps is aging, but even his eventual death won't put an end to the church. Much of the heavy lifting of this flock (which consists mostly of extended family) is done by a daughter, Shirley Phelps-Roper, who was listed as part of the lawsuit.

I suspect that, even if the Supreme Court were to rule in Snyder's favor, Westboro would take the financial hit and simply adjust their antics, just as they now carefully abide by the limits that have been set by jurisdictions, such as rules about how close they can stand at funerals and in cemeteries.

Kansas law probably would shield much of their wealth from seizure, as it is in retirement accounts and other protected holdings.

Al Snyder deserves our sympathy and admiration, and he certainly deserves the financial support of those who can spare it. But Westboro Baptist Church won't stop. No matter what the cost.

To contribute to the Snyder court case, go to www.matthewsnyder.org.

THE KANSAS CITY STAR

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