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Protesting Homosexuality at Funerals

Protesting Homosexuality at Funerals

Last week the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument in the case of a Baptist Minister who claimed that his first amendment right to free speech entitled him to protest at the funerals of U.S. military service men and women.  The case follows roughly in line with those that have accorded the greatest possible freedom to Americans who make public political statements — in this case, “God Hates You,” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” — however offensive.

However, unlike past cases that evidence a strong bias towards free expression in the public forum — for example, Neo Nazi marchers in Chicago, demonstrating in the streets, or the pornography of Larry Flint, published in print — the anti-homosexuality protests of the Westboro Baptist congregation disrupt private sacred rituals. 

Not just in the United States, but in cultures far and wide, reaching back as far as archaeological evidence exits to document, burial rites have been among the most profound of human traditions.

Would barring protests at funerals really undermine our First Amendment freedom? 

Is there a slippery slope worry?  Stop someone from protesting at a funeral today, and tomorrow they will be blocked from picketing in front of a factory or speaking on the steps of city hall?

I can think of nothing so precious — save maybe the moment of birth of a child — as the solemn ritual of family and friends gathering at graveside or place of worship, to eulogize, show support, to weep and to say goodbye to loved ones.  To disturb people in either of these situations — and to use the Constitution to do so, is unacceptable. 

It is not the type of speech which stands out here, it is the inappropriate context.  Grief is not a public forum but a private rite.  To undertake the necessary process of grieving requires not just the support of community but the immersion in the experience of loss.  The funeral, however constituted by cultural tradition, leads us through both a conscious and unconscious transformation. 

This sacred space must be preserved.

(For more on this story, including notes on the questions asked by new Justice Elena Kagan, check out my October 9, 2010, podcast review of the legal case Snyder v. Phelps at

Marc Seltzer is a contributor to, a weekly U.S. Supreme Court case review podcast.  A complete collection of all Marc Seltzer’s writing and podcasts is available at

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5:31PM PST on Jan 22, 2011

I'm all for free speech, but really do these people have nothing to do but be fearful? Maybe all the people should protest at anyone's funeral for everything they are in life if they offend someone in any way.

5:38AM PST on Dec 1, 2010

This is not about first admendment rights. This is just hate and ignorance. These being are mourning a lost loved one. They should not have to deal with idiots like this.

I do not think that anything that spurs hate and intolerance should be protected by the 1st amendment.

6:27PM PST on Nov 30, 2010

He may be a minister, but he's no man of God.

10:33AM PST on Nov 15, 2010

There should be laws to prevent this.

8:53AM PST on Nov 15, 2010

Really sick people out there ....

5:53AM PST on Nov 15, 2010

I thought Only GOD could Judge!

5:32AM PST on Nov 15, 2010

Their motives are simple. The alleged church depends for its income on suing people who punch them. Therefore the alleged Christians need to irritate people enough to get someone to take a swing. Under ordinary circumstances, most people see through this, but when disarmed by the grief of losing a loved one, even a saint can falter. So the alleged minister brings his alleged flock to a funeral to annoy, and annoy, and annoy.

4:28AM PST on Nov 15, 2010

I'm ok with his right to protest. I'm also ok with the cemetary (usually private property) blocking his entrance. I'm ok with any other counter activity thing we can come up with. Fair is fair, we did get Hells Angels & vets to escort fallen soldiers to their resting places.

I do question how a Baptist Minister can be ok with this is his role. I wonder how his church congregation or elders feel.

Who gave him the right to pass judgement? Oh, now I remember, that is the reason I avoid organized religion. You can't trust the middle man.

3:01AM PST on Nov 15, 2010

SHAME on the 2%!!

2:12PM PDT on Oct 21, 2010

I believe nature's way is best. Homosexuality exists in nature, therefore it is natural, anyone with a problem with can take it up with the creater.

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