October is a great month. Not only does it mark the beginning of the Halloween season, which is always wonderful as it magically makes people give out candy for free, but it always is home to a number of lesser known events. For instance, National Cyber Security Awareness month begins in October, so does Fair Trade month, something called Apple Day, and a host of other holidays and observances that I would have never heard of if I didn’t have Wikipedia and need to find a creative way to segue into mentioning that October marks the beginning of the new term for the Supreme Court of the United States.
Now that that’s out of the way, I can say that the Supreme Court is gearing up to look at a lot of interesting cases this term. And first up to bat is a case involving the crazy folks over at the Westboro Baptist Church (better known in the media as the “God Hates F*gs” people). I apologize for the language, but at least I know better.
The same can’t be said about Fred Phelps and his ilk. They have made a name for themselves by harassing the families and friends of dead US war veterans by picketing during their funerals. Class act, I know. But the Supreme Court may soon be putting an end to their shenanigans if the court rules in favor of Albert Snyder.
The case, Snyder v. Phelps, will essentially decide whether the Westboro Baptist Church will be able to continue picketing the funerals of US war veterans. If the court decides they can’t, then the case will likely be remanded back down to the lower courts where they’ll have to consider the case again in light of the Supreme Court’s new ruling. Which means a ruling in favor of Snyder will not only finally shut up the Westboro kooks, but will also result in monetary damages paid to Snyder for the Church's intentional infliction of emotion distress.
This case came about after Phelps’s church protested in front of the funeral of Snyder’s son, Cpl. Matthew Snyder, who was killed in Iraq at the age of 20 back in March 2006. Snyder claims that because of the Westboro Baptist Church’s picketing of his son and the harassment he suffered at the funeral service caused him emotion distress.
There’s no question that the trauma of losing a son compounded with the actions of the lunatics at the Westboro Church is a pain that no person should have to endure. And I don’t think anyone in their right mind would want to go through it or let Phelps’s church get away and continue to do what they’ve been doing. However, as much as it pains me to say this, if the Supreme Court rules against the Phelps, the ruling may cause more problems than it solves.
This is because the crux of Snyder’s argument is that Phelps violated his First Amendment right of freedom to practice his religion. He’s essentially claiming that the funeral service was a religious ceremony where he was a captive audience and therefore was at the funeral for the purpose of practicing his religion. The term “captive audience” denotes a person or group of people who have gathered for a specific purpose in which they must stay at that gathering either to listen, speak, or in this case observe a funeral, but are exposed to information that’s unrelated to their original purpose (in this case, Phelps’s picketing). Westboro’s argument is that they have a First Amendment right to free speech and gathering. Therefore, if the Supreme Court rules in Snyder’s favor, the court would essentially make captive audiences a protected class of people, or at the very least captive audiences gather for a religious purpose.
While this may not sound like such a bad idea to some, the implication of such a ruling would have sweeping effects on people’s constitutional right to free speech and public gatherings. For instance, all the protesting that has been going on in front of Catholic churches due to the priest molestation scandal would likely be put to an end. This is because the priest could claim that they are perpetually conducting religious services and therefore those in attendance are captive audiences and must be free from exposure to messages unrelated to their religious purpose.
Theoretically, such a ruling can also be abused to expand beyond churches. Companies with unfair unemployment practices seeking to stop protestors from picketing in front of their offices could claim that employees within the building practice prayer at regular intervals during the day. Therefore, the praying employees become a captive audience to the protestors outside. Pretty scary, right?
Hopefully if the Supreme Court does come down in Snyder’s favor, the ruling will be one that’s narrowly tailored enough to fit only this specific case. No one wants Phelps’s church to win this one, but I just hope the Supreme Court figures out a way to shut them up without impeding on everyone else’s constitutional rights.
By: Andrew Dat