Church, family must pay almost $11 million for funeral protest

BALTIMORE — Members of the Westboro Baptist Church caused emotional distress to the father of a Maryland Marine killed in Iraq by picketing his funeral and must pay nearly $11 million in damages, a jury found Wednesday.

The federal jury sided with Albert Snyder, who claimed he sank into a depression after church members protested at the funeral of his 20-year-old son, Matthew, in March 2006.

The jury deliberated for seven hours before issuing its verdict against the fundamentalist evangelical church, based in Topeka, Kan., and three of its members: Fred Phelps Sr., who founded the church in 1955, and two of his daughters, Shirley Phelps-Roper and Rebekah Phelps-Davis.

The nine-member jury found that the protesters invaded Snyder's privacy and caused him "mental pain and suffering, fright, nervousness, indignity, humiliation, embarrassment and insult." Snyder broke down and cried when the verdict was announced, then hugged his relatives and friends.

The jury awarded Snyder $2.9 million in compensatory damages. Later in the afternoon, it decided to award $6 million in punitive damages for invasion of privacy and $2 million for causing emotional distress, according to the Associated Press.

The case appears headed for appeal. The Phelpses filed a motion asking for a mistrial, citing judicial bias, but Judge Richard Bennett denied the request.

In their motion, the defendants said that Bennett had spoken critically about the church's ability to add members in recent years, that he said Phelps-Roper was eager to get out her religious views and that he had referred to her writings as "rambling," among other things. They said the judge noted that Phelps-Davis testified that 99 percent of mankind was going to hell, which would include people in the courtroom. The Phelpses said Bennett's remarks went beyond impatience with courtroom procedures and reflected "deep-seated favoritism or antagonism, at times in the presence of the jury."

Neither Snyder nor members of the Phelps family would comment on the verdict earlier in the day. Bennett had ordered all parties involved, including the attorneys, not to speak to the media.

The lawsuit marked the first case to go to trial involving the church's protests at military funerals. Last week, Jonathan Phelps, the son of Fred Phelps Sr., said the outcome of the trial would have no effect on the church's plans to conduct protests. Church members say they protest nearly every day and have picketed more than 30,000 times in the last 17 years.

The Phelpses said they protested at Snyder's funeral because he was a member of the military, defending a country that has institutionalized sodomy.

Wednesday wasn't a total loss for the Phelps. As they awaited the verdict, the defendants went across the street from the courthouse to protest during a sunny noon hour.

Fred Phelps, wearing sunglasses and standing next to his wife, Margie, carried a sign that read, "God is your enemy." Phelps-Roper, standing on an American flag and holding a sign that read "God hates fag enablers," joined two of her sisters in singing "God Hates America" to the tune of "God Bless America." A bicyclist passing by spat at the protesters, while a handful of drivers honked and yelled obscenities. One man walking by was confused and asked why the protesters were taking God's name in vain.

The verdict came after an emotional seven-day trial. In closing arguments on Tuesday, Snyder cried when he watched a video showing the signs that were displayed at his son's funeral. One said: "Thank God for dead soldiers."

Sean Summers, Snyder's attorney, said the behavior of the church members was "offensive, shocking, extreme and outrageous in any context, but especially at a funeral."

Jonathan Katz, an attorney for the Phelpses, said the funeral was a public event, and he reminded jurors that the First Amendment protects unpopular speech and religious groups.