Statement by NCLR Executive Director Kate Kendell
(San Francisco, CA, March 2, 2011)—Today, in an 8-1 decision authored by Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment protects fundamentalist church members who mount anti-gay protests near military funerals, despite the pain they may cause families mourning the loss of their loved ones.
The case involved a protest by the Topeka, Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church at the funeral of a Marine killed in Iraq in 2006. The protesters held signs saying “God Hates Fags,” “You’re Going to Hell,” and “God Hates You.”
The Court held that although the protesters’ speech was “certainly hurtful and its contribution to public discourse may be negligible,” it was protected by the First Amendment. The Court wrote:
“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. 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. That choice requires that we shield Westboro from tort liability for its picketing in this case.”
Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. was the lone dissenter, writing: “Our profound national commitment to free and open debate is not a license for the vicious verbal assault that occurred in this case.”
Statement by NCLR Executive Director Kate Kendell:
“What is striking about today’s decision is not the Court’s legal analysis, which does not break new ground, but the spotlight this case shines on the despicable character and hatefulness of anti-gay bigotry. Can you imagine fighting for the right to spew hatred at a funeral? What an appalling indictment of those who oppose our humanity and equality.”
The National Center for Lesbian Rights is a national legal organization committed to advancing the civil and human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people and their families through litigation, public policy advocacy, and public education.