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Coakley supports halting protests

AGs urge high court to protect mourners

By Milton J. Valencia
Globe Staff / May 28, 2010

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Attorney General Martha Coakley, decrying the disruption of military funerals by picketers from a controversial Kansas church, is urging the US Supreme Court to protect the privacy of mourners by allowing states to regulate protests during burial services.

Coakley said yesterday that she is joining several attorneys general from around the country in signing a legal brief supporting a Maryland man who sued members of Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., after they protested at the funeral of his son, Lance Corporal Matthew A. Snyder, who was killed in Iraq in 2006.

Coakley said she is joining the case not only to support the Snyder family, but also to defend a Massachusetts law that restricts interference with funerals.

“This is a case of a father’s right to bury his son in peace,’’ Coakley said in an interview after participating in a pre-Memorial Day vigil at Boston Common for fallen soldiers of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In a statement, she added: “We believe that Mr. Snyder and the families of all fallen soldiers should have the right to grieve and honor their sons and daughters free from the kind of hateful protests that occurred in this case.

“We have a state law in Massachusetts that protects against ‘funeral protests,’ and, while we respect the First Amendment rights of our citizens, we also join this case to help protect this law to assure that people in Massachusetts continue to have the ability to bury their family members in peace.’’

Westboro Baptist Church, led by Fred Phelps, vociferously argues that God hates gay people and frequently protests military funerals to draw attention to its concerns.

The church has protested funerals in Massachusetts, including a service for Staff Sergeant Christopher Piper, 43, of Marblehead in 2005.

At funerals, the protesters hold signs that read, “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,’’ and “God Hates America & is Killing Our Troops in his Wrath.’’

At Snyder’s Catholic funeral, they held signs that read, “Priests rape boys,’’ and “You’re Going to Hell.’’

Snyder’s father, Albert, asserted that the group violated his privacy rights by protesting policies that were not initiated by his son.

The father was awarded more than $10 million in damages in 2007.

The award was later reduced to $5 million, and then the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the judgment, deciding that the church had a First Amendment right to exercise free speech on issues of national debate.

A representative of the church predicted in a statement yesterday that the Supreme Court will affirm the appeals court ruling.

“They will uphold the rule of law,’’ the church said.

But in filings before the court, lawyers for the Snyder family argue that the Appeals Court erred and that the group’s rights to free speech should not trump a private father’s right to hold a funeral for his son.

“The US Constitution does not permit a person to intentionally harm another person, even if that includes, in part, free speech,’’ said Sean Summers, a Pennsylvania attorney representing the family.

“You have to consider not only the speaker’s rights, but also the listener’s rights. In this case, the listener was a private family in a private church.’’

He said the nation’s highest court will have to find a balance between a protester’s rights, a listener’s rights, and states’ rights to intervene in civil cases that could affect state law.

The Massachusetts law restricting funeral protests was passed in 1978, and more than 40 other states now have similar laws.

“Some of this is First Amendment law; some of this is common sense,’’ Coakley said.

On Boston Common yesterday, Paul Monti, the father of an Army soldier who died in Afghanistan in 2006, said protesters from Westboro Baptist Church should consider the sacrifices soldiers make to protect free speech.

“We have that freedom now because of the men and women who have passed away,’’ said Monti, whose son, Sergeant First Class Jared C. Monti, was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor last year.

“I’d just like this pastor to know the grief he causes for these families of the men and women who are fighting to protect his speech and religion,’’ Paul Monti said.

“And if that’s not enough, he should look to God, to pray for these men and women who made their sacrifice.’’

Milton Valencia can be reached at mvalencia@globe.com.

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