In a 8-1 decision on March 2, The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, in a suit filed against the church by Albert Snyder.  Snyder’s son, Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder, was a U.S. Marine who was killed in Iraq in 2006.  Members of Westboro Baptist picketed Snyder’s funeral, as they have at hundreds of other memorials, with signs bearing messages of “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” “You’re Going to Hell,” “God Hates the USA,” and “Thank God for 9/11.”  Albert Snyder sued the church for intentional infliction of emotional distress and was awarded $5 million in damages.  A federal appeals court overturned that verdict, and the Supreme Court agreed that the church members were protected by the Constitutional right of freedom of speech.

Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote, “Speech is powerful. It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and — as it did here — inflict great pain. On the facts before us, we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker.”  Justice Samuel Alito wrote a lone dissenting opinion. 

As an American, I understand and affirm the reasoning of the Supreme Court Justices who were intent on upholding the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of expression, regardless of how vile, reprehensible, and hurtful that speech may be.

As a Christian, I am sickened and saddened by the ongoing hatred, insensitivity, and cruel vitriol that are spewed by those who claim the cross of Christ and presume to speak in the name of God. 

Westboro Baptist Church is led by Fred W. Phelps, and the congregation is primarily made up of members of his extended family.  Phelps and his followers believe that our national tragedies, natural disasters, and every American soldier’s death is the direct result of God’s punishment upon our nation for the sin of homosexuality.  They delight in the pain of others.  To a world lost in sin, they offer epithets and slurs, rather than a Gospel of peace and a message of hope.  Few people have spoken more directly about sin than John the Baptist, but somehow he found a way to touch the hearts of tax collectors and prostitutes with a message of repentance (Matt. 21:31-32).  However, he didn’t accomplish this through pickets and insults.  Fred the Baptist could learn a thing or two from John.

I undoubtedly share some of the same moral concerns as Phelps, but I serve a different God than he does.  My God hates no one, but loves each person created in His image so infinitely and completely that He allowed His innocent Son to die on their behalf so that they could receive the forgiveness of sins through the power of His blood.  I have to remind myself, against human inclinations otherwise, that God’s love extends even to Phelps and his purveyors of hate who drive people further from the cross of Christ and block the entrance into the kingdom of God.  That, indeed, is an awesome God.          

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