March 2, 2011 at 12:29 pm EDT | by Peter Rosenstein
Westboro: When heart and head differ

Today’s Supreme Court ruling is one case where my heart and my head differ.

My heart says that allowing the crazies from Fred Phelps’ Westboro Baptist Church to have an anti-gay protest at the military funeral of a brave young man who valiantly served his country is a travesty.

In 2006, at the funeral of Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, 20, who was killed in Iraq, the church – which is made up almost entirely of the family members of its founder, the Rev. Fred W. Phelps – picketed carrying signs such as “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” “God Hates Fags” and “America is Doomed.” The church contends military deaths are God’s revenge for the country’s tolerance of homosexuality.

Matthew’s father, Albert Snyder, sued the church and argued at trial that the Phelps clan had invaded his privacy, caused emotional distress, and violated his rights to free exercise of religion and peaceful assembly. The Supreme Court today disagreed.

These few family members of the Phelps church appear to be entirely nuts and unhinged. I have had my own run-ins with them over the years. The last time being in front of the courthouse a year ago when the first marriage licenses were handed out after civil marriage equality became law in D.C.

I am disgusted and offended by them. I find them a blight on civil discourse and I could add a few more choice words inappropriate for publication.

But my head agrees with the Supreme Court’s 8-1 ruling today saying that the Phelps group’s offensive tactics are part of the guaranteed free speech we treasure so much in the United States. Like when the Nazis marched in Skokie, Ill., many years ago and my heart, the heart of someone whose grandparents died in Auschwitz, found them totally offensive, but my head told me they had the right to march.

Two Justices I often disagree with came out on different sides of this issue. My head supports the position of Justice Roberts who said, “While it is certainly hurtful and its contribution to public discourse may be negligible.” The government “cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker.” He went on to say, “As a nation we have chosen a different course — to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate.”

My heart supports Justice Alito, the lone dissenter, who said, “Our profound national commitment to free and open debate is not a license for the vicious verbal assault that occurred in this case.”

Where do we go from here? Do we disregard the Phelps group and let them say what they want, where they want, and hope that even those who may not be supportive of gay rights realize they are nuts? In the future do we talk to the family members of any brave young men and women who have given their lives for our country and whose funerals the Phelps clan threaten to picket and ask them if they want us to do a counter protest?

I think one answer is that we just continue our fight for LGBT civil and human rights knowing that some like Phelps who pretend to understand God don’t actually speak in his/her name. We continue work with our allies including so many religious leaders who are supportive and understand that what we want and ask for aren’t special rights but simply to live our lives in dignity and peace with the same rights as everyone else. We work with those who understand that our civil marriages don’t impact theirs and that our families are the same as theirs. We continue to fight for all our civil and human rights and celebrate our victories such as the most recent one, which will allow us to serve and even die for our country just as Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder did.

We must believe that love and fairness will eventually win out and that Phelps and his ilk will be relegated to the dung heap of history, forgotten as they should be.

  • I’ve never understood the “my heart and my head differ” argument. This is plainly a case in which one should follow one’s head. Also, I believe that the Phelpses are helping reason win out by whipping up antipathy for their own cause.

  • All I know is this: If they come to picket in Florida, they now stand a much greater chance of being shot and killed. It would be worth going to prison to rid the world of these living turds.

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