Thursday, October 7, 2010


Today’s Mobile Press-Register had an op-ed piece by Doug Gansler about the case (currently before the Supreme Court) of Snyder v Phelps, in which a local congregation chose to picket (and violently and vulgarly attack the family of) a funeral—the young man was a soldier killed in Iraq. The congregation (basically consisting of a single family of about 50) has decided these deaths are God’s punishment on America for tolerating homosexuality. Let’s explore all these ideas.

First of all, on what ground would this congregation decide that only military deaths are “God’s punishment”? Why would they not equally demonstrate at every other funeral in our country? There is a dimension of selectivity here that is at least biased.

Second, on what basis can the Phelps family decide (in law, at least) that they are a “church”? Does the government grant protection for any group that decides to refer to itself as a religious body? Unfortunately, this is the historical reality of Protestantism in general: when a divisive issue surfaces, groups splinter and form new “congregations.” It is the reason we have the number of Protestant denominations that we do: everyone seems to be “protesting” against someone or something.

Third, is there any basis for thinking that by simply refusing to allow such protests (designed to offend) that anyone’s 1st amendment right of free speech is impeded? I doubt it—these people are completely free to preach whatever they choose within their own church. No one is knocking at their door with warrants for their arrest.

Fourth, under what rubric is hate-language to be protected? We Catholics have forcibly rejected the anti-Holocaust remarks of the schismatic bishop Williamson; are we to be regarded therefore as intolerant of freedom of religious expression? I doubt it.

Finally, most Americans understand the letters RIP (even if they are not Catholic)—they mark tombstones all over our country. They are an abbreviation of the Latin phrase Requiescat in pace, or “May he/she rest in peace.” Implicitly we recognize this as a right; surely we must also recognize as a right the ability of a family to bring a loved one in peace to his or her place of rest.

Even to discuss this issue is more than disappointing—it is part and parcel of the bitterness and anger that characterizes Terry Jones and his desire to burn copies of the Qur’an. The Supreme Court has a vested interest in insuring the domestic tranquility and protecting the general welfare of the nation (as the Constitution’s Preamble states). Small-minded people who insist on shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theatre do not deserve protection under the law; those in the theatre do.


  1. Well stated, Father. I wonder myself how far free speech should stand. I think this "church" is pretty rejected by most in our society, but if they rule not to allow them to freely speak in a public place, I wonder what will happen to freedom of is a quandary. I just wonder how these people, who are being so cruel, can live with themselves.

  2. Some thoughts on "Rights". The Supreme Court represents the principles of the constitution. The constitution was established with much thought for constituents who wanted a unified nation based on religious principles. The constitution and its legal interpretation is steadfast. (Like God's covenant)
    The spiteful demonstration of the Westboro 'church' followers deviates from normal christian behavior. This group traveled 1000 miles to be near the Catholic church where Matthew Snyder, a Marine Corp lance corporal was being memoralized. He was heterosexual.
    This trip to the memorial site seems to indicate harassment of an extraordinary degree. Might this not be taken up in a civil court?