Anti-war funeral protesters lose lawsuit

Staff and wire reports

A grieving father won a nearly $11 million verdict Wednesday against a fundamentalist Kansas church that pickets military funerals out of a belief that the war in Iraq is a punishment for the nation’s tolerance of homosexuality.

Albert Snyder of York, Pa., sued the Westboro Baptist Church for unspecified damages after members demonstrated at the March 2006 funeral of his son, Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, who was killed in Iraq.

A Maryland jury first awarded $2.9 million in compensatory damages. It returned in the afternoon with its decision to award $6 million in punitive damages for invasion of privacy and $2 million for causing emotional distress.

Church members routinely picket funerals of military personnel killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, carrying signs such as “Thank God for dead soldiers” and “God hates fags.”

Westboro Church members said they were going to protest at the funeral services for Army Sgt. Leroy “J.R.” Segura Jr. of Clovis on Aug. 14, 2006, but did not show.

Segura, a 23-year-old Clovis native, was killed 10 days before in a vehicle accident in Iraq.

Westboro Church spokesperson Megan Phelps-Roper said local news coverage of the plans to picket prior to Segura’s services had accomplished the goal of the protesters and made their presence in Clovis unnecessary.

A number of states have passed laws regarding funeral protests, and Congress has passed a law prohibiting such protests at federal cemeteries. But the Maryland lawsuit is believed to be the first filed by the family of a fallen serviceman.

The church and three of its leaders — the Rev. Fred Phelps and his two daughters, Shirley Phelps-Roper and Rebecca Phelps-Davis, 46 — were found liable for invasion of privacy and intent to inflict emotional distress.

Snyder claimed the protests intruded upon what should have been a private ceremony and sullied his memory of the event.