Soldiers’ sacrifice demands love, not hate
The Patriot Guard Riders
Our nation is built on the concept of freedom. Freedom from oppression, freedom of religion, and freedom of speech are just a few of the principles etched into our national identity first through revolution to become enshrined in our Constitution. These are principles, which make us great.
No great principle goes untested, and these freedoms have never been an exception. The tests of freedom of religion cause us to continually sort out how we can be a nation primarily made up of believers, while not singling one way of believing, even one way of being a Christian, as American and all others as wrong.
Freedom of speech has been tested in many ways. Often these tests have us protecting “speech” we consider distasteful or even hurtful so that the principle of free speech continues to mean truly free speech and not that approved by those in power.
The Supreme Court has just agreed to take up the case of Snyder v. Phelps, which offers just this sort of test. Though I have written of similar cases before, I am angered anew when I read of how the Rev. Fred Phelps’ little Westboro Baptist Church picketed the funeral of Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder. The 20-year old corporal was killed in active duty in Iraq. He was the gunnery on a Humvee, and died in a vehicle rollover in a non-combat related vehicle accident.
As the family was just beginning their long journey of grief for their son and brother, Phelps and his followers targeted the Snyder funeral for nothing less than hate speech. Westboro has organized and carried out 43,000 protests since 1991, most staffed with Fred Phelps’ children and grandchildren.
The funeral was held at St. John's Catholic Church, which the Phelps group picketed. Being sure to follow all applicable laws governing where they could stand and not stand, the signs that day included, “God Hates the USA/Thank God for 9/11,” “Semper Fi Fags,” “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” and “Priests Rape Boys.”
Snyder’s sexuality was not the issue in the protest and this is relevant. Westboro Baptist Church’s consistent statement on their protests is that God is punishing our soldiers because of our nation’s tolerance for homosexuality. The 75-member church says they have discovered that the publicity from funeral protests helps get out their message, so they continue to use this method.
This lack of personal attack on Snyder matters to the court case as the 4th Circuit Court in Richmond threw out a lower court award of $5 million to the Snyder family saying that the signs did not target Snyder, but, in the words of the court, contained “imaginative and hyperbolic rhetoric intended to spark debate about issues with which the defendants are concerned.” In other words, because they were not defaming the character of an individual, but seeking to spark debate on a topic of national policy, the speech was offensive, but protected.
No matter what one thinks of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, I trust that we are united in a desire to respect anyone who dies while serving our nation. A non-combat death in a war zone is always combat related. Combat is why the Lance Corporal was manning a gun that day. In any case, the Marine’s sacrifice and the sacrifice of his family deserves, even demands honor not hate. Yet, how can we honor his service and that of the many men and women who selflessly put themselves in harms way following the orders of our military without infringing on the freedoms our military is duty bound to protect?
When I first wrote on a similar protest in 2006 (that article is remains online here), I noted that 27 states had passed funeral laws to limit what Westboro, or other funeral-targeted protests could do. I felt then that it is probably impossible to legislate our way out of this problem. Now with 40 states having some sort of related law on the books, I still suspect that a free nation will to tolerate some level uncomfortable forms of protest in order for our rights to remain in tact.
While I will not be bothered in the least if the Supreme Court finds a way to use surgical precision to cut out the possibility of hate-filled attacks at a funeral of soldier, sailor, air warrior or Marine while preserving all other free speech, I know that might not be possible. Yet, honor demands honor. I suggest two steps be taken to minimize this problem.
Step one: We stop listening. Phelps protests only work as long as they spark debate. I am now writing about his church for the second time in four years and so I share this guilt. I will never give his church free ink again by writing about their protests. I know this solution will be little heeded, but wherever it is followed, it will help.
Step Two: Protect the families at the funerals. The Phelps protestors have been flawless in following all applicable laws. That is why their outrageous actions not only have been protected but arguably deserve protection. Law abiding protests of government policy should be covered by freedom of speech. Yet, the families need protection too. This is why the Patriot Guard Riders, a motorcycle club, have provided themselves as human shields to legally block the Phelps protestors from family view. It is not ideal, but physically shielding the family is loving and it is legal.
Why legislate around one small Kansas church when we can block their actions from families and otherwise ignore them? The physical act of standing between a grieving family and those who would inflict pain as part of a larger agenda is the honorable thing to do.
My lament is that the Supreme Court case will give more publicity to a fringe movement on the edge of Christianity. As Jesus’ greatest ire was for the holier-than-thou crowd who looked down on those in need rather than loving them, I can’t imagine his siding with these attacks on a family in grief. I find it much easier to make sense of Jesus teaching us to love our neighbors as ourselves when Christians offer their bodies as shields of protection rather than as standard bearers for hate.
The above is my column for today's religion page in the Tribune & Georgian.
Another photo of the Patriot Guard Riders at a funeral of a fallen member of our Armed Forces.
Labels: religion column