The US Supreme Court issued a majority opinion today that the homophobic and hostile Westboro Baptist Church is covered by the First Amendment when its members picket outside funerals; this is based on the grounds that the substance of the protests could be considered commentary on national matters.
"As a nation we have chosen...to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the court. "That choice requires that we shield Westboro from tort liability for its picketing in this case."
The Westboro church believes that any misfortune America suffers is divine punishment for the nation's failure to follow the sect's doctrine, which condemns gays, Catholics, Jews and others. The tiny church, whose membership largely consists of the founder's family, pickets military funerals to get attention for its message.
This majority opinion stretches the First Amendment until it squeaks at the edges, to get it to cover hate-mongering and homophobia because those attitudes are associated with a presumed theological critique of national affairs. Eight of the nine justices concurred in the majority opinion, though Justice Stephen Breyer wrote a separate opinion partially modifying his concurrence. Justice Samuel Alito dissented, in a separate opinion that pointed out relevant issues that had not been considered by the court.
Immunizing Westboro from tort action means that the plaintiff, Albert Snyder, cannot sue in civil court for damages related to Westboro's picketing at the 2006 funeral of his son, Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder. An earlier Pennsylvania court decision that slapped Westboro with a $10.9 million judgment for the Snyder funeral protest was overturned on appeal before the case arrived at the Supreme Court.