Members of the Westboro Baptist Church Luke Phelps-Roper, 8, left, and Seth Phelps, 9, both from Topeka, Kan., picket outside the White House in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday. ((Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press))

The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday in a case that pits a dead marine's grieving father against the Westboro Baptist Church, an obscure Kansas church that protests at soldiers' funerals.

Albert Snyder, the father of Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, is asking the top court in the United States to reinstate a $5-million US penalty against the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka.

In court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said the issue is whether the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which protects the right to free speech, must tolerate "exploiting this bereaved family."

Died in Iraq

Snyder, of York, Pa., took legal action after church members picketed the funeral of his son, who died on duty in Iraq.

"My son and the hundreds of thousands of other men and women who have died for this country worked too hard to preserve our freedom of speech than to have it mocked and cowardly stood behind like this church does," Snyder said.

In 2006, church members picketed at Matthew Snyder's funeral, brandishing signs that read, "Thank God for dead soldiers" and "God hates fags."

The marine was not gay. However, the members of the church, who gained notoriety for using the same tactics at funerals for AIDS victims and who also oppose abortion, claimed his death was God's "punishment" for the United States' tolerance of homosexuality.

Snyder's father sued and in 2007, a jury ordered the church to pay $11 million. That penalty was later reduced to $5 million.

The verdict and penalty were later overturned on appeal.

On Tuesday, members of the church — who are predominantly from one extended family — demonstrated in front of the White House.

"[The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001] happened because it was a final warning from God," said church member Jacob Phelps.

Many legal scholars believe the top court will likely rule in favour of the church in defence of the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment.

Snyder has the backing of 48 states, 42 U.S. senators and veterans groups. Several media organizations have sided with the church — on the basis of protecting First Amendment rights.

With files from The Associated Press