Free speech victory for anti-gay church

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The Independent US

The United States Supreme Court ruled yesterday that free speech provisions in the Constitution protect fundamentalist church members who mount anti-gay protests outside military funerals, despite the pain they cause.

The court voted 8-1 in favour of the Westboro Baptist Church. The decision upheld an appeals court ruling that threw out a $5m (£3m) judgment to the father of a dead Marine who sued church members after they picketed his son's funeral.

Chief Justice John Roberts said the Constitution's First Amendment protects the funeral protesters. He said: "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," Mr Roberts said. "As a nation we have chosen a different course – to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate."

Justice Samuel Alito, who dissented, disagreed: "Our profound national commitment to free and open debate is not a license for the vicious verbal assault that occurred."

The Rev Fred Phelps and his family members who make up most of the Westboro church have picketed many military funerals in their quest to draw attention to their incendiary view that US deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq are God's punishment for the nation's tolerance of homosexuality.