By Bill Buchanan
“Thank God for dead soldiers.” It is hard to think of a more offensive slogan to put on a placard, or shout at a rally, parade, or protest. Couple this with the fact that this slogan, and other literary gems like it, are printed on signs and screamed into the faces of grieving families at the funerals of their loved ones who have given their life for our country, and you have the perfect storm of offensive speech.
We all know the pain associated with losing a loved one. I cannot imagine going through the grieving process while just across the street hate-mongers shout slogans and shake signs celebrating the death of your loved one. But this is the mission statement of the faithful members of the Westboro (Kansas) Baptist Church. On a regular basis, they target military funerals to spew their vitriol against minorities, people of other religious faiths, and gay Americans. They claim the military sustains a government that supports gay rights, and that is why God is killing soldiers. Church members travel around the country, gather at a military funeral, get as close to the ceremony as possible, then yell and chant and wave placards as the funerals are being conducted. Their agenda is hatred, fueled by fear.
One would assume they target military funerals so as to be outrageous enough to garner significant media coverage. If so, they have been successful. Media coverage has intensified recently as an understandably upset family sued the church for disrupting Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder’s funeral in 2006. The case moved through the judicial system, and a few days ago, the Supreme Court handed down an 8-1 decision in favor of the church on the basis that the slogans and chants are protected speech under the First Amendment.
The knee-jerk reaction is that speech like this cannot possibly justify protection. But as abhorrent as these tactics by this church seem, the Supreme Court made the right call. If you are going to protect and promote free speech, you have to be willing to accept things that truly disgust you. To do otherwise would go against what the founding fathers so wisely guarded in the Constitution. You either have free speech or you don’t.
The Westboro Baptist Church targets the funerals of those who have fought for the freedom that allows church members to terrorize those soldiers’ families. This church mocks the very people who died protecting the rights of their members to perform such demonstrations. That irony is probably lost on the congregation.
Sometimes our laws allow people to perform repulsive and even perverse actions — -actions that are almost impossible to understand, much less accept. But those very laws are among the things that make our country great. As a nation, we would be diminished if we compromised those laws to halt speech or actions with which we disagree.