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Court Adds Insult to Injury

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The father of a fallen Marine, who bore the brunt of hateful taunting by Fred Phelps and crew at his son’s funeral, has been ordered to pay Phelps’ legal fees. On March 26, 2010, the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Baltimore, Maryland, ordered Albert Snyder of York, Pennsylvania, to pay Phelps $16,510 in legal fees.

Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, of Finksburg, Maryland, died March 3, 2006, while serving in Iraq. He was 20 years old. Lance Cpl. Snyder’s funeral was one of many where Phelps and members of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, protested with signs reading “Thank God for IEDs,” “God Hates the U.S.A,” and even one that twisted the Marine Corps. motto to include a slur against homosexuals. Phelps contends that U.S. war deaths are God’s punishment for our nation’s tolerance of homosexuality.

Albert Snyder brought a civil lawsuit against Phelps seeking damages for emotional distress and invasion of privacy.

“This is a private civil lawsuit that is separate from any actions being pursued by states or the federal government against Mr. Phelps,” notes the website for the Al Snyder Legal Fund. “While those cases involve government action and potential 1st Amendment issues, this case is distinct. This case simply alleges that one does not have the right to conspire to use lies in order to inflict intentional harm upon persons who are grieving the death of their children.”

A Baltimore jury awarded Albert Snyder $5 million in damages. On Friday, the Court of Appeals reversed that award, saying that the signs contained “imaginative and hyperbolic rhetoric” which is protected by the First Amendment.

“As an attorney, I can say this is one of the reasons why Americans are so disillusioned with our court system,” said Mario Diaz, Concerned Women for America’s Policy Director for Legal Issues. “Here you have a grieving father who is awarded emotional distress damages by ‘a jury of his peers’ at the trial level — the court that actually gets to hear the testimony and see the evidence first hand. And then you have an appellate judge, not only nullifying the jury’s verdict, but also punishing the grieving father for what the jury did. It makes no sense at all, in legal theory or practical application.”

The funeral protests by Phelps have given rise to counter protesters, most notably the Patriot Guard Riders, which provides escorts and a patriotic shield for grieving families. The Patriot Guard Riders (PGR) was born in August 2005 after the first funeral protest held by Phelps. The American Legion Riders of Post 136 in Kansas developed the PGR as a way to coordinate funeral escorts and facilitate the participation of non-veterans and interested motorcycle clubs. While Phelps spurred the creation of the PGR, the group is quick to note that they are not a “counter-Phelps” organization, they are simply for showing respect to our fallen warriors. The riders attend funerals only when invited by the family.

“As a Christian and a Baptist, I can say that the actions of Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church are neither Baptist, nor Christian,” added Diaz. “I hope the American people can see the difference between those who faithfully follow the teachings of Jesus Christ and Phelps’ misguided, odious teachings. We stand as far away from him as Jesus stood from the Pharisees who also claimed to ‘lead’ the Church of old while engaging in the worst practices.”

This Appeals Court ruling has left Al Snyder scrambling to find the $16,510 he is now ordered to pay Phelps, on top of the fees associated with filing a brief with the U.S. Supreme Court. While Snyder’s attorneys have taken the case pro bono, the Al Snyder Fund has been created for those wishing to help the family with the fees associated with litigation.