Judgment Day arrived Wednesday for a Kansas church described by some as a hate cult, with a jury ordering the church to pay nearly $11 million in damages for spewing anti-gay slogans and cheering at a U.S. soldier's funeral.
'Don't do this in Maryland again. Do not bring your circus of hate to Maryland again.' —Craig Trebilcock, lawyer for Albert Snyder
Albert Snyder, the grieving father of Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, took the Westboro Baptist Church to court after members of the controversial sect showed up at his son's memorial service brandishing signs that read, "Thank God for dead soldiers" and "God hates fags."
The marine, whodied on duty in Iraq in March 2006, was not gay. However, the members of the church, who gained notoriety for using the same tactics at funerals for AIDS victims, picketed Snyder's funeral anyway. They reasoned that hisdeath was God's "punishment" for the United States' tolerance of homosexuality.
Snyder said action by the Topeka, Kansas-based church — which comprises some 70-odd worshippers, mostly from the same family — outraged and disgusted mourners, and sullied Snyder's memory of the funeral.
The church's founder, Rev. Fred Phelps, andhis daughters Shirley Phelps-Roper and Rebekah Phelps-Davis were named in the suit and found liable for invasion of privacy and intent to inflict emotional distress.
To compensate Snyder, the jury awarded him $2.9 million in damages and added another $8 million in punitive damages.
Snyder wept as the ruling was announced in his favour, but members of the church smiled and vowed to continue campaigning against homosexuality as they exited the courtroom.
'Goal wasn't about the money'
"Don't you think this was an act in futility?" Shirley Phelps-Roper remarked to reporters about the decision.
"This is nothing. God is not going to stop killing your soldiers. He's not going to stop pouring his wrath on this nation," she continued.
For his part, Snyder said the $10.9-million figure wasn't so much his reason to celebrate.
"The goal wasn't about the money, it was to set a precedent so other people could do the same thing," he said, adding he hoped the case would put a final end to the church's hate campaigns.
Jurors arrived at the sum after Snyder'slawyer, Craig Trebilcock,told them to pick an amount "that says 'don't do this in Maryland again. Do not bring your circus of hate to Maryland again.'"
Argued on First Amendment
The Phelps family argued they had every right to picket the military funeral under the First Amendment's protection of freedom of speech. Their lawyer, Jonathan Katz, also said the damages sought were excessive and would "bankrupt them and financially destroy them."
The $2.9 million alone was already more than the church's net worth, which is estimated at about $1 million, Katz said.
It is unclear whether the Phelps will be able to make good on the payments.
TheWestboro Baptist Church was the subject of a BBC documentary aired earlier in 2007 entitled The Most Hated Family in America.