Discussion Question: Did the Supreme Court Get it Right with Snyder v. Phelps?
The Supreme Court recently ruled 8 to 1 that members of the Topeka, Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church are entitled to stage their controversial antigay protests even when they cause substantial injury to family members and others attending the funeral of a loved one.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion stating, "What Westboro said, in the whole context of how and where it chose to say it, is entitled to 'special protection' under the First Amendment and that protection cannot be overcome by a jury finding that the picketing was outrageous."
Do you agree with lone dissenter Justice Samuel Alito statement that "Our profound national commitment to free and open debate is not a license for the vicious verbal assault that occurred in this case," or did the Supreme Court get it right?
One of my favorite movies is “The American President,” (1995) starring Michael Douglas and Annette Bening. It is the story of a widowed president who falls in love with a liberal lobbyist. He struggles to navigate his relationship with her while also doing his job as the President. It’s a good movie, you should see it if you haven’t. In the final speech of the movie, President Shepherd (Douglas), who has been maligned politically because of his relationship with the lobbyist Sydney Ellen Wade (Bening), finally stands up for himself at an impromptu press conference. In the middle of his speech he says
Everybody knows America isn't easy. America is advanced citizenship. You gotta want it bad, 'cause it's gonna put up a fight. It's gonna say, "You want free speech? Let's see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who's standing center stage and advocating, at the top of his lungs, that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours. You want to claim this land as the land of the free…” Show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms. Then you can stand up and sing about the land of the free.
The Westboro Baptist Church proved that we are in a nation of advanced citizenship. This church, made up of largely one family, has received media attention for protesting at the funerals of dead soldiers. They believe that the deaths of these soldiers are God’s punishment for America’s tolerance of homosexuality. The father of one of the dead soldiers then sued the church in response to their protests for intentional infliction of emotional distress. The question at issue was simple – does the right to free speech protect those who would intrude and disrupt at the moment of a family’s grief, and should the Court protect speech that is vile and unpopular. In an 8-1 decision, the Court ruled that the free speech rights of the church deserve to be protected, even if the speech itself is repugnant. Chief Justice John Roberts, who wrote the decision for the Court restated what has been fairly well settled law when it comes to free speech. Even when the speech is repulsive, the response is not to punish the speaker. The history of America has been clear – the government will not stifle public debate by deciding whose speech is acceptable and whose is unacceptable.
This is especially germane because the speakers here are a religious group. The Court’s defense of this type of religious speech is a victory for every religious institution. If the Court will protect Westboro, then surely the Court is willing to protect all of us. The other lesson to draw from this decision is that, contrary to popular belief, the public square is not being closed to religious groups. There has been some concern (occasionally legitimate and at times not so legitimate) that if certain types of speech and speech against certain groups in society is labeled hate speech, then churches will not have the latitude to speak to what they deem to be the moral ills of society. The Court showed in its decision this week that this will not be the case. Churches of all denominational stripes will still have free speech. They will still be able to speak to the problems that they see in society. And as always, we will continue to have the freedom to listen, ignore, or speak against what churches say. In a nation built on the principles of freedom and equality, this is the way it should be.
I also think that citizenship in the kingdom of God (both here and in Heaven itself) will also be advanced citizenship. Heaven will be filled with people who believe differently from us (whoever “us” maybe). There is so much division amongst religions and to believe that only one particular stripe of Christianity (or any other religion for that matter) will be the only group to inhabit Heaven is just not sustainable. (See John 10:16) It is also unsustainable to think that you will get to Heaven and just automatically be able to put aside the differences that separated us here. Maybe we should practice respecting the beliefs and traditions of others while on Earth.
Author: Jason Hines
Jason Hines is Associate Editor for ReligiousLiberty.TV an independent religious liberty website. A Harvard Law graduate, Jason practiced commercial litigation in Philadelphia for five years and conducted seminars on religious liberty in his spare time. This gave him the opportunity to discuss issues of religious freedom with Adventists in churches all over the United States. In 2008, Jason decided to devote his life to work in religious liberty. To that end, he enrolled at the Seminary at Andrews University, where he is pursuing a Master’s Degree in Religion. He is also a PhD candidate in the Religion, Politics, and Society at the J.M. Dawson Institute for Church-State Studies at Baylor University. Jason blogs about religious liberty and other religious issues at thehinesight.blogspot.com.