I really don't want to be in the position of continually defending professional homophobe Fred Phelps. He's an evil man with an evil belief system who has brought added grief to hundreds -- if not thousands -- of people by picketing funerals with his "God Hates Fags" message.
But I believe that the First Amendment give Fred Phelps the right express those views -- no matter how odious, no matter how provocative the time and place of his expression. Michael Smerconish, writing in today's Philadelphia Inquirer, disagrees.
By picketing Lance Cpl. Snyder's funeral, didn't Westboro Baptist infringe upon family members' First Amendment right to freely exercise their religion? Which on March 10, 2006, took the form of a burial service at St. John's Catholic Church in Westminster, Md.Get past Smerconish's troubling implication that Fred Phelps' rights -- and by extension, our rights -- are somehow less valuable when they come in conflict with the desires of a military family. Smerconish's argument is that the Snyder family was less able to exercise their own rights to religion and peaceably assemble because of the Phelps protest.
And because the Westboro demonstrators weren't protesting on a street corner or in a public park, it could also follow that they infringed upon the Snyders' right to peaceably assemble for that private funeral.
The point is that while Phelps and his flock may believe they have a constitutionally protected right to protest at a funeral, that right should not come at the expense of the Snyders' right to peaceably gather at a Catholic funeral. Especially when that practice involved mourning the death of an American hero.
"When the Fourth Circuit decided in favor of Phelps against Mr. Snyder, implicitly they decided that Mr. Phelps' rights were more important than Mr. Snyder's rights," Sean Summers, the York, Pa., lawyer representing the Snyder family, told me in a phone conversation last week. That should not stand.
And I don't think that's true. The funeral still happened. The Snyders still assembled. They still gave their son a Catholic service. It appears that they exercised their Constitutional rights fully -- but want to deny Phelps the opportunity to do the same. And I don't blame them -- Phelps' protests truly are execrable -- but that doesn't make them right.
It bears repeating at every opportunity: The First Amendment protects all variety of assholes, troublemakers, demagogues and rabble-rousers. It doesn't just protect popular speech because, well, popular speech doesn't really need protecting does it? The First Amendment protects even Fred Phelps. Because of that, it protects us all.