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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    God hates Westboro Baptist Church

    Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., is famous for testing the boundaries of free speech. Brandishing signs that proclaim most Americans will burn in Hell, that God hates homosexuals and that natural disasters are God’s way of punishing America for its tolerance of iniquity, is a favored pastime of members – and they’ve picketed everything from synagogues to gay-pride events to stores selling Swedish vacuum cleaners. In recent memory, they’ve added the funerals of soldiers who have fallen in Iraq to their schedule of regular protests, and they’ve wielded signs stating “”Thank God for dead soldiers.””

    The church, whose main Web site can be found at the charming URL Godhatesfags.com, makes the claim that casualties of war are just another manifestation of God’s wrath against the United States.

    The church consists of Fred Phelps Sr., 70 members of his immediate family and a few friends. But their “”circus of hate”” may soon come to an end: A Baltimore federal jury ruled against them in a case brought to civil court by Albert Snyder, the father of Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder of the Marine Corps, who perished in Iraq.

    Phelps and his clowns picketed Snyder’s funeral. In return, the court ordered that they pay $10.9 million in damages – enough to bankrupt the church several times over – for invasion of privacy, defamation, civil conspiracy and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The fine includes $2.9 million in compensatory damages and a further $8 million in punitive damages.

    Critics argue that the verdict is a deliberate attempt to infringe upon the church’s right to free speech. But don’t be fooled by this argument. The First Amendment has nothing to do with this case whatsoever. For starters, the matter was settled as a civil issue, not a criminal one. No church member is going to prison as a result of this affair, and courts have repeatedly ruled that the right to free speech doesn’t include the right not to be held liable for the consequences of such speech.

    Careless, tactless speech can cause great harm – hence why it’s prohibited to yell “”Bomb!”” in an airport. The church caused emotional distress, including depression and physical illness, and violated the privacy of the funeral goers. As far as harmful speech goes, that’s pretty nasty.

    It gets worse. As Shirley Phelps-Roper admitted to Louis Theroux in his BBC documentary, “”The Most Hated Family in America,”” the goal of the church’s protests isn’t to win souls to Christ. Rather, the goal is to warn people that their reunion with the loved ones whose deaths they mourn will take place in Hell. The church adheres to a pseudo-Calvinist theology that states that God has elected certain people for salvation before birth and redemption is impossible. Such rhetoric betrays the fact that the church’s mission is, and always has been, to cause emotional and spiritual suffering in others for its own benefit.

    This malice benefits Westboro in more ways than one. The church’s income comes from provoking people into physical violence against church members, then suing the attackers. The Phelps family contains an inordinate number of lawyers who specialize in such cases.

    The irony is delicious: The church’s profit model has now become the source of its destruction. Moreover, such outright cruelty more than provides sufficient grounds for the seemingly exorbitant $8 million punitive damages, which was added in response to the prosecution’s demand that the state send a strong message to the church never to return to Maryland.

    Is there a better way this could have been handled? Probably. A class-action lawsuit from the family members of all who have had their right to a peaceful, solemn funeral disturbed by the Phelps family’s trollish behavior would distribute the money more fairly, have less of a chance of being overturned in an appeals court and have the same effect of sending a harsh, debilitating message to the church.

    But make no mistake about it: The case is a victory for Snyder’s family and for Americans at large. It is a powerful reminder to all of us that with great freedom comes great responsibility – the responsibility to exercise our right to free speech with care, prudence and empathy for others. In this sense, the case is a smashing victory for American rights – including the right not to be viciously attacked without possibility of retribution.

    The church plans to appeal the decision. But if the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit has its head on straight, it’ll uphold the decision, putting a severe stopping block in the way of über-extremist religiosity and ending the church’s tasteless tirade of terror once and for all.

    In the meantime, the rest of us can marvel that God didn’t see fit to protect the church during the trial. The church’s “”God hates us all”” ideology is more fitting of a Slayer album than a Christian organization. But if there’s a God up there after all, at least we can take solace in the fact that He really does hate Westboro Baptist Church.

    Taylor Kessinger is a junior majoring in math, philosophy and physics. He can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu.

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