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Thursday, December 9, 2010

Elizabeth Edwards' Funeral To Be Picketed By Westboro Baptist Church Protesters

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Edwards' Funeral To Be Picketed By Controversial Church

A church that pickets funerals to protest what it calls American immorality says its members will be picketing the service this Saturday for Elizabeth Edwards, who died of breast cancer on Tuesday.

Based in Topeka, Kan., the Westboro Baptist Church said it would be outside the Edenton Street United Methodist Church in Raleigh, N.C., during the funeral for the former wife of one-time vice presidential candidate John Edwards.

Westboro members, led by the Rev. Fred Phelps, have also picketed military funerals to make their point that U.S. deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq are punishment for Americans' immorality, including tolerance of homosexuality and abortion.

Signs like "Thank God for Dead Soldiers" have been raised at military funerals, and the church announced its latest action with a press release titled "God hates Elizabeth Edwards."

The church, founded in 1955, has about 70 members consisting mostly of Phelps' children, grandchildren or in-laws. Phelps, 80, and his followers have protested at more than 200 military funerals, according to court documents.

The church has gotten the attention of the U.S. Supreme Court, which last October heard arguments over whether it has a free speech right to picket funerals with its controversial signs.

The justices are expected to rule by mid-2011 in the case brought by the father of a Marine killed in Iraq. He wants a $5 million civil verdict reinstated against members of the church.

An appeals court threw out the fine on the ground that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right of free speech.

The Supreme Court justices heard arguments in the emotion-laden case of Albert Snyder. His son died in Iraq in 2006, and members of the church protested the funeral.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said the question is whether the First Amendment must tolerate "exploiting this bereaved family."

There was no clear answer from the court during the questioning.

Snyder is asking the court to reinstate the lower-court verdict's fine against the Westboro members who held signs outside the funeral of Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, including ones that read "Thank God for Dead Soldiers, "You're Going to Hell" and "God Hates the USA." The Marine was killed in a Humvee accident in 2006.

The church also posted a poem on its website that attacked Snyder and his ex-wife for the way they brought up Matthew.

The case pits the right of the father, Albert Snyder, to grieve privately against the church members' right to say what they want, no matter how offensive.

The members of the small church welcome the attention the protests have brought, mocking their critics and vowing not to change their ways whatever the outcome at the Supreme Court.

"No American should ever be required to apologize for following his or her conscience," said Margie Phelps, a daughter of Fred Phelps and the lawyer arguing the case for the church.

Snyder won an $11 million verdict against the church for intentional infliction of emotional distress, among other claims. A judge reduced the award to $5 million before the federal appeals court in Richmond, Va., threw out the verdict altogether, citing the church's free speech rights under the First Amendment.

For Snyder, the case is not about free speech but harassment. "I had one chance to bury my son and it was taken from me," Snyder said.

Forty-eight states, 42 U.S. senators and veterans groups have sided with Snyder, asking the court to shield funerals from the church's "psychological terrorism."

While distancing themselves from the church's message, media organizations, including The Associated Press, have called on the court to side with church because of concerns that a victory for Snyder could erode free speech rights.

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Sources: AP, CNN, MSNBC, WCNC, Google Maps

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