A York County father whose Marine son died in Iraq and the church whose members protested his funeral may clash one more time - if the U.S. Supreme Court agrees to hear the case.

The U.S. fourth circuit court of appeals said Thursday the Rev. Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church were within their First Amendment rights to protest at the funeral of Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder.

The ruling reversed a Maryland jury's verdict in October 2007 to award Albert Snyder, a Spring Garden Township resident, $2.9 million in compensatory damages and $8 million in punitive damages for emotional distress and invasion of privacy.

Synder's attorney, Sean Summers, said he told Snyder about the court of appeals' decision Thursday afternoon.

"He was certainly not happy to hear that it was reversed," he said. Summers said Snyder would not be making public comments about the ruling that night.

Summers said the only option is to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. He said getting the High Court to accept the case is a long shot, but not impossible, because the court typically hears cases that require examination of the Constitution.


Matthew Snyder was killed March 3, 2006, in Iraq when his Humvee overturned as he was protecting a convoy. During his funeral in Westminster, Md., a week later, Phelps and others held up signs that read, "Semper Fi, Semper Fags" and "Thank God for Dead Soldiers." They told reporters they believed soldiers' deaths were the deserving result of America's tolerance of homosexuality.

During the trial, Summers said, the defendants "disclosed $1 million in assets." He said he suspected that amount to be higher, "but we don't think they have $5 million either."

Summers said bankrupting a defendant is not an acceptable legal intent, but "one of Mr. Snyder's goals has been to prevent them from terrorizing other families."

In February 2008, Maryland District Court Judge Richard D. Bennett cut the federal jury's award to Albert Snyder from $10.9 million to $5 million.


The appeals court's ruling states that what Phelps and his followers did was protected under the Constitution:

"To paraphrase our distinguished colleague Judge Hall, judges defending the Constitution 'must sometimes share [their] foxhole with scoundrels of every sort, but to abandon the post because of the poor company is to sell freedom cheaply.

Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder
Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder (Daily Record/Sunday News -- File)
It is a fair summary of history to say that the safeguards of liberty have often been forged in controversies involving not very nice people.'"

The ruling took into account the rights of the church, but, "certainly, there was no consideration given to Mr. Snyder's rights," Summers said.

Snyder had a right to grieve for his son without being harassed, Summers said. Snyder also had a First Amendment right to practice religion - the funeral was held in a church - without reprisal, he said.

In addition, members of the church chose to protest to a "captive audience," Summers said. The only place to attend the funeral was the church, where the Westboro members were protesting, he said.

"His rights got trampled on and he gave up his son (who was) defending those rights," Summers said of the elder Snyder. "He sacrificed more than most will ever understand."

High Court

Reached Thursday, one of Fred Phelps' daughters, Shirley Lynn Phelps-Roper, said she welcomed the chance to have the case argued before the Supreme Court.

Her message to Snyder and Summers was, "Please appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Lots of luck."

Phelps-Roper, one of the defendants in the case, said receiving news of the ruling was "kind of overwhelming."

"The First Amendment was written for this situation right here," she said. "You may not put people on trial for their religious activity."

She also said she did not think the First Amendment provided for Snyder to grieve for his son without the funeral being protested.

Also of interest

· Major 1st Amendment cases linked to York/Adams growing.