Fred Phelps and the members of his Westboro Baptist Church are repugnant human beings. Their “theology” seems to consist of one tenet: God hates homosexuals. The Reverend Phelps and his followers first came to my attention when they picketed at the funeral of Matthew Shepherd—the Wyoming man murdered for being gay. The signs they carry, the things they say, heck, even their web address, are repulsive.
The last few years they have gained notoriety by picketing near the funerals of United States servicemen and servicewomen who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the brutal theological world Phelps and his fellow troglodytes inhabit, God is killing American soldiers because He is mad about our societal shift toward greater acceptance of homosexuality. Their presence near these military funerals has garnered lots of media coverage and inflicted immeasurable emotional harm on the families, friends, and mourners at these ceremonies.
Some states have begun to pass legislation establishing protester-free buffer zones around military funerals. Based on the actions of Phelps and his followers, President George W. Bush signed the Respect For America’s Fallen Heroes Act in 2006. The act establishes restrictions on the time and place for demonstrations at Military burial places.
The father of one serviceman whose funeral was picketed by the Phelps menagerie was so incensed by the desecration of his son’s memory that he sued Fred Phelps in Maryland State Court for invasion of privacy and emotional harm. The father, Albert Snyder, was awarded $5 million in damages as a result of the Maryland trial. An appeals court set aside the $5 million damages award and Mr. Snyder’s appeal of the Maryland Appeals Court decision is now being heard by the United States Supreme Court. The nine justices will have to find the proper balance between a family’s right to privacy and our Constitution’s guarantee of free speech.
Another case in the news this week has dovetailed nicely with the Phelps case. Attorney Danny Lampley of Lafayette County in Mississippi was jailed temporarily for refusing to say the Pledge of Allegiance in the courtroom of Judge Talmadge Littlejohn. Judge Littlejohn’s orders are printed below:
“IT IS THEREFORE ORDERED, ADJUDGED, AND DECREED, that Danny Lampley,
Attorney at Law, is in criminal contempt of court for his failure to stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance as ordered by the undersigned Chancellor and is hereby ordered to be incarcerated in the Lee County jail.
IT IS FURTHER ORDED, ADJUDGED, AND DECREED, that Danny Lampley shall purge himself of said criminal contempt by complying with the order of this Court by standing and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in open court.”
Most Americans would agree that the things Fred Phelps and his supporters say are godawful. A large majority of Americans would probably also agree that saying the Pledge of Allegiance is the opposite of godawful. When taken together these cases explain why I am a card-carrying member of the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU defends the Constitution of the United States. We are not a nation of individuals or political parties or lobbyist groups or churches. We are a nation of laws. And in order for our laws to work they have to protect our freedom.
Even the freedoms to say stupid-ass shit like the Phelpsians and the freedom to remain silent as others recite the Pledge of Allegiance. If the freedom of speech protected by the first amendment to the United States Constitution is to mean anything at all, it must include the right to say things that are stupid, hurtful, and wrong. If a Pledge of Allegiance is to ever mean anything, it CANNOT be compulsory.
My ACLU renewal form came in the mail last week and I set it aside on the kitchen table. And then I read news coverage of the Phelps case and the Lampley case and I filled out the check and mailed it right in. I sleep better knowing there are lawyers out there protecting the Constitution from us flawed humans. We are a country of laws and sometimes we need to be reminded that the Constitution is blind, deaf, and insensitive to the thoughts being expressed (or withheld), but acutely attuned to each citizen’s right to say (or not) those thoughts.