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United States: Civil Verdict Against Religious Protestors at Funeral Upheld

(Feb. 2, 2008) On February 4, 2008 the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland upheld a civil verdict in a lawsuit brought by the family of a deceased soldier against protestors at the soldier's funeral.

Members of the Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas have been involved in a number of legal disputes arising from their protests at the funerals of United States soldiers in which they preach that God is punishing America for its tolerance of homosexuality by killing soldiers and other Americans. (See, e.g., Global Legal Monitor, December 2007, at 49.) They carried out such a protest at the funeral of a soldier in Maryland, and afterward posted an article on the Church's web site expressing their view that the soldier had been "raised for the devil" and "taught to defy God."

The family of the soldier sued, and obtained a verdict for compensatory damages of $2.9 million and punitive damages of $8 million for invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The judge, ruling upon a number of post-trial motions, upheld the verdict overall but reduced the punitive damages awarded to $2.1 million, applying principles of Maryland law. The judge rejected the claims of the defendants that their conduct was protected by the Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Religion rights granted by the First Amendment, noting that "the Supreme Court has recognized that there is not an absolute First Amendment right for any and all speech directed by private individuals against other private individuals" and that freedom of religious expression must be balanced against a state's interest in protecting its citizens from tortuous injury. (Snyder v. Phelps, Civil Action No. RDB-06-1389 (D. Md. Feb. 4, 2008) available at