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$5 million verdict against church and pastor reversed

An assertion that a Marine was killed in Iraq as punishment for the tolerance of the United States for homosexuality was repugnant, but it could not be the basis for a $5 million judgment, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled today.

U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett in Baltimore had ruled that the First Amendment barred a defamation claim against the Rev. Fred W. Phelps Sr. and his Westbro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan.

But he allowed a jury to consider the claims of the father of Lance Cpl. Matthew A. Snyder for invasion of privacy by intrusion upon seclusion, intentional infliction of emotional distress and civil conspiracy.

Church members appeared with signs near, but out of sight from, Snyder’s funeral in Westminster, Md. The signs contained such messages as “Semper fi fags” and “Thank God for dead soldiers.”

After the funeral, a church member posted an “epic,” on its Web site stating that Snyder’s father had “taught Matthew to defy his creator” and “raised him for the devil.”

As distasteful as such rhetoric is, the 4th Circuit panel said, the First Amendment protects statements of public concern that fail to have a “provably false connotation” as well as those that employ “loose, figurative or hyperbolic language” on matters of public debate.

Because the trial judge should have reached such a conclusion before the trial, the panel reversed the verdict and, in effect, entered judgment for the defendants.

Phelps and his church members attracted national attention and revulsion by appearing at the funerals across the country of soldiers killed in Iraq with signs and rhetoric similar to that used at Snyder’s funeral.

By Alan Cooper

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