WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court is entering an emotionally charged dispute between the grieving father of a Marine who died in Iraq and the antigay protesters who picket military funerals with inflammatory messages like "Thank God for dead soldiers."
The court agreed Monday to consider whether the protesters' message, no matter how provocative or upsetting, is protected by the First Amendment or limited by the competing privacy and religious rights of the mourners.
The justices will hear an appeal from a Marine's father to reinstate a $5 million verdict against the protesters after they picketed outside his son's funeral in Maryland four years ago. Members of a Kansas-based church have picketed military funerals to spread their belief that U.S. deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq are punishment for the nation's tolerance of homosexuality.
The funeral protest dispute was one of three cases the court said it would hear in the fall. The others involve whether parents can sue drugmakers when their children suffer serious side effects from a vaccine and NASA's background checks on contract employees. The government says the decision in the NASA case could throw into question the background checks routinely done on all federal government workers.
The protest lawsuit stemmed from picketing by members of the fundamentalist Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., outside the funeral for Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder in Westminster, Md. Snyder died in March 2006 when his Humvee overturned.
The funeral was one of many that have been picketed by Westboro pastor Fred Phelps and other members of his church. One of the signs at Snyder's funeral combined the U.S. Marine Corps motto, Semper Fi, with a slur against gay men.
Other signs carried by church members read, "America is Doomed," "God Hates the USA/Thank God for 9/11," "Priests Rape Boys" and "Thank God for IEDs," a reference to the roadside bombs that have killed many U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
There was no suggestion that Snyder was gay or that the protests even involved him directly. But after returning to Kansas, Phelps said on his Web site that Albert Snyder, the soldier's father, had "taught Matthew to defy his creator" and "raised him for the devil."
Snyder's father sued Phelps, his daughters and the church and won more a verdict of more than $11 million for emotional distress and invasion of privacy. The judge reduced the amount to $5 million, but a federal appeals court threw out the verdict altogether.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the signs contained "imaginative and hyperbolic rhetoric" protected by the First Amendment.
Shirley Phelps-Roper, a defendant in the lawsuit and one of Phelps' daughters, said she is pleased the case is going to the Supreme Court. "We get to preach to the conscience of doomed America," she said in an interview Monday. "I am so excited that I can't I tell you how good it is."
In the vaccine case, parents, drug companies and the Obama administration all asked the court to decide whether vaccine makers can be sued in state court over injuries that allegedly result from vaccines.
All but one court has held that a 1986 law limits such lawsuits and instead directs parents to a special vaccine court. The law was intended, in part, to ensure a stable vaccine supply by shielding companies from most lawsuits.
The Georgia Supreme Court is so far the only one that has ruled that families can sue in a vaccine case, and drugmakers are eager for the U.S. high court to remove any uncertainty caused by the Georgia ruling.
The lawsuit at issue concerns claims by parents in Pittsburgh who want to sue Wyeth over serious side effects their daughter, 6 months old at the time, allegedly suffered as a result of the company's diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis vaccine.
According to the lawsuit, Hannah Bruesewitz was a healthy infant until she received the vaccine in April 1992. Within hours of getting the DPT shot, the third in a series of five, the baby suffered a series of debilitating seizures. Now a teenager, Hannah suffers from residual seizure disorder, the suit says.
The vaccine court earlier rejected the family's claims and Wyeth, now owned by Pfizer Inc., prevailed in a federal appeals court ruling.
Wyeth lost another high court fight last year over whether federal law barred lawsuits against drugmakers. That case, involving a botched injection, asked whether federal law included an implicit prohibition on the lawsuits. The court said it did not.
In this appeal, however, Congress clearly laid out how claims over vaccines were to be made, and the court has repeatedly ruled against plaintiffs when Congress has explicitly sought to bar lawsuits.