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Washington • Supreme Court justices, in a rare public display of sympathy, strongly suggested Wednesday they would like to rule for a dead Marine's father against fundamentalist church members who picketed his son's funeral but aren't sure they can.
Left unresolved after an hourlong argument that explored the limits of the First Amendment: Does the father's emotional pain trump the protesters' free speech rights?
The difficulty of the constitutional issue was palpable in the courtroom as the justices weighed the case of Albert Snyder. His son died in Iraq in 2006, and members of a family-dominated church in Topeka, Kan., protested at the funeral to express their view that U.S. deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq are God's punishment for American immorality and tolerance of homosexuality and abortion.
Margie Phelps, arguing the case for her family's Westboro Baptist Church, said the message of the protests at military funerals and elsewhere is, "Nation, hear this little church. If you want them to stop dying, stop sinning."
Phelps' argument did not endear her to the justices, who asked repeatedly whether Snyder had any recourse.
"This is a case about exploiting a private family's grief," said Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who questioned whether the First Amendment should protect the church members.
Could a wounded soldier sue someone who demonstrates "outside the person's home, the person's workplace, outside the person's church … saying these kinds of things: 'You are a war criminal,' whatever these signs say or worse?" Justice Elena Kagan asked.
Justice Samuel Alito wanted to know if the Constitution also would shield someone who delivers a mean-spirited account of a soldier's death to the serviceman's grandmother while she is leaving her grandson's grave. "She's waiting to take a bus back home," Alito imagined and someone approaches to talk about the roadside bomb that killed the soldier. " 'Let me describe it for you, and I am so happy that this happened. I only wish I were there. I only wish that I could have taken pictures of it.' And on and on. Now, is that protected by the First Amendment?"
Snyder, of York, Pa., is asking the court to reinstate a $5 million verdict against the Westboro members who held signs outside the Westminster, Md., 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 20-year-old Marine was killed in a Humvee accident in 2006.
The church also posted a poem on its website that assailed Snyder and his ex-wife for the way they brought up Matthew.
A decision is expected by late spring.
Former death row inmate's suit scrutinized
The Supreme Court may reconsider a $14 million judgment to a former death row inmate who accused New Orleans prosecutors of withholding evidence to help convict him of murder.
Justices seemed skeptical Wednesday when John Thompson argued that the district attorney's office in New Orleans showed deliberate indifference by not doing specific training for employees on turning over evidence.
Thompson came within weeks of being executed before he was acquitted in the killing of a hotel executive. Prosecutors had a crime lab report favorable to Thompson but never turned it over.