July 15, 2010 at 5:37 pm EDT | by Staff reports
National news in brief

Westboro says funeral protests are protected

BALTIMORE — The fundamentalist church that picketed the funeral of a Marine killed in Iraq with anti-gay signs argued last week that its actions were protected by the First Amendment.

According to the Associated Press, an attorney for the Westboro Baptist Church submitted a 75-page brief July 7 to the U.S. Supreme Court, which will hear arguments in a lawsuit against the church this fall. Albert Snyder of York, Pa., says that the church’s free-speech rights did not trump his right to peacefully assemble for his son’s funeral.

The Topeka, Kan.-based church believes that U.S. military deaths are God’s punishment for tolerance of homosexuality. Founder Fred Phelps and six of his relatives picketed the 2006 funeral of Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder in Westminster, Md., carrying signs that read “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” and “You’re Going to Hell,” among other statements.

Attorney Margie Jean Phelps, the church founder’s daughter, will argue the case before the Supreme Court. She argued in her brief that Westboro did not disrupt the funeral in part because its protest was 1,000 feet away from the church, on a public street. Snyder did not see the protesters and could not read their signs during the funeral, but was aware of their presence.

“He was able to go to and leave the funeral without any slightest disruption or interference,” Phelps wrote. “WBC was out of sight and sound; maintained a very reasonable distance; acted peacefully and engaged in no disruption or intrusion. … This is the wrong case to decide whether there is a privacy interest in a funeral.”

Phelps also argued that the church was engaging in public speech on a matter of public concern; that the funeral was a public event; and that the church did not assert provable facts but instead expressed “hyperbolic, figurative, loose, hysterical opinion.”

In 2007, a jury found against Westboro and awarded Snyder nearly $11 million as compensation for emotional distress and invasion of privacy. That award was later reduced and then overturned by a court of appeals.

The Associated Press reported that the Supreme Court agreed in March to take the case, and the justices will hear arguments during the court’s next term, which begins in October. Forty-eight states and the District of Columbia submitted a brief in support of Snyder. The states argued they have a compelling interest in protecting the sanctity of funerals.

Mormon church restates opposition to gay marriage

SALT LAKE CITY — Mormon church leaders have restated the faith’s unequivocal position against same-sex marriage in a letter to members in Argentina, where the government is debating whether to legalize gay unions.

“The doctrine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is absolutely clear: Marriage is between one man and woman and is ordained of God,” said the July 6 letter from church President Thomas Monson, according to the Associated Press.

A copy of the letter and its English translation began circulating over the weekend on websites for former Mormons.

Church spokeswoman Kim Farah on Monday confirmed the letter was sent to local leaders in Argentina, where the faith has more than 371,000 members, according to a 2010 church almanac. The country’s population is more than 41 million.

Argentina’s Senate is debating whether to approve either gay marriage or a civil union law. The country’s other legislative body — the House of Deputies — approved same-sex marriage legislation in May. President Cristina Fernandez has promised not to veto the measure if it reaches her desk.

150 residents moved out of hot Md. nursing home

BALTIMORE — Maryland health officials said last week they were moving all 150 residents, including some living with HIV/AIDS, out of a Baltimore nursing home after operators didn’t report a broken air conditioner for three days.

Nancy Grimm, director of the state Office of Health Care Quality, says officials believe the air conditioner stopped working sometime July 3. But the state wasn’t aware until a resident called 911 early July 6, the Associated Press reported.

When health officials arrived at the Ravenwood Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, it was 91 degrees inside.

Grimm said no residents suffered health complications related to the heat. Most of the residents are under 65 and suffer from a variety of conditions, including paralysis and HIV/AIDS.

Grimm said the state is investigating the nursing home’s failure to report the problem.

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