It's hard to imagine a more despicable message than the notion that U.S. combat deaths in Iraq are God's just punishment for America's tolerance of gays and lesbians. But that is precisely why a Kansas church preaching that demented doctrine must receive the protection of the 1st Amendment. Those on society's margins -- and sometimes its weirdos -- are those whose speech needs protecting.
A federal jury in Baltimore has stripped such protection from Westboro Baptist Church by ordering the church to pay $11 million in damages to the family of a Marine killed in Iraq. Members of the church had picketed outside the funeral of Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, carrying signs that read: "Fag troops," "God hates the USA" and "God hates you!" Although they didn't obstruct entrance to the Catholic church where Snyder's funeral was held, the jury found that the protesters -- including Westboro pastor Fred Phelps -- were liable for invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
American law has long allowed individuals to seek damages for invasion of privacy and infliction of emotional distress. But the U.S. Supreme Court has made it clear that such lawsuits must be viewed in light of the 1st Amendment's protection for what the late Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist called "the free flow of ideas and opinions on matters of public interest and concern."