A US fundamentalist church that has no qualms about marring funerals of soldiers, denouncing them as gays, has been ordered to pay up nearly 11 million dollars in damages.
A nine-member federal jury ruled Wednesday that members of the Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church caused mental suffering to Albert Snyder, who says he became depressed after they paraded outside the funeral of his 20-year-old son Matthew in 2006.
AdvertisementThey had waved signs reading "Thank God for dead soldiers," and "Fag troops."
A video of the protests was played in court during the week-long trial of Fred Phelps, who founded the church in 1955, and two of his daughters, Shirley Phelps-Roper and Rebekah Phelps-Davis.
Their lawyer Jonathan Katz had argued that the funeral was a public event and their actions were protected by the constitutional rights to free speech and religious expression.
His contentions were turned down by the jury. But the trio remained unfazed. They walked out of the room, smiling and vowing such verdicts would not deter them from persisting with their protests.
"Absolutely, don't you understand this was an act in futility?" asked Shirley Phelps-Roper.
For they believe that U.S. deaths in the Iraq war are punishment for the nation's tolerance of homosexuality.
Albert Snyder sued the Topeka, Kanss church after a protest last year at the funeral of his son, Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, who was killed in Iraq. He claimed the protests intruded upon what should have been a private ceremony and sullied his memory of the event.
A jury agreed and the trio were found liable for invasion of privacy and intent to inflict emotional distress.
Jurors awarded Snyder $2.9 million in compensatory damages and $8 million in punitive damages.
It's unclear whether Snyder will be able to collect the damages.
The assets of the church and the defendants are less than a million dollars, mainly in homes, cars and retirement accounts, defense attorney Jonathan Katz said. The church has about 75 members and is funded by tithing.
Craig Trebilcock, one of Snyder's lawyers, had asked jurors to question the truthfulness of the defendants' financial documents, one of which show Phelps-Davis having only $306 in the bank. He noted that Phelps-Davis is a practicing attorney, who could afford to travel to spread the church's message.
"Rebekah Phelps-Davis has $306? She must be using Priceline.com. It doesn't make any sense," Trebilcock said.
The attorney had urged jurors to award damages that would send a message to the church: "Do not bring your circus of hate to Maryland again."
Trebilcock later called the verdict "Judgment Day for the Westboro Baptist Church."
"They're always talking about other people's Judgment Day. Well, this is theirs," he said.
Snyder sobbed when he heard the verdict, while members of the church greeted the news with tightlipped smiles.
They are confident the award will be overturned on appeal, Phelps said.
"Oh, it will take about five minutes to get that thing reversed," he said.
Another of Snyder's attorneys, Sean Summers, said he would tirelessly seek payment of the award.
"We will chase them forever if it takes that long," he said.
A number of states have passed laws regarding funeral protests, and Congress has passed a law prohibiting such protests at federal cemeteries. Snyder's lawsuit is believed to be the first filed by the family of a fallen serviceman.
Snyder, of York, Pennsylvania, said he hoped other families would consider suing.
"The goal wasn't about the money, it was to set a precedent so other people could do the same thing," he said.
Earlier in the day, church members staged a demonstration outside the federal courthouse, while passing motorists honked and shouted insults.
Phelps held a sign emblazoned with "God is your enemy," while Phelps-Roper stood on an American flag as she carried a sign that proclaimed "God hates fag enablers." Members of the group also sang "God Hates America," to the tune of "God Bless America."