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Originally published November 1, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified November 1, 2007 at 2:03 AM

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$11M damage award for picketing funeral

Members of a fundamentalist Kansas church caused emotional distress to the father of a Maryland Marine killed in Iraq by picketing his funeral...

BALTIMORE — Members of a fundamentalist Kansas church caused emotional distress to the father of a Maryland Marine killed in Iraq by picketing his funeral and must pay nearly $11 million in damages, a jury found Wednesday.

The federal jury sided with Albert Snyder, of York, Pa., who said he sank into a depression after church members protested at the funeral of his son, Matthew, 20, in March 2006.

The jury deliberated for seven hours before issuing its verdict against the Westboro Baptist Church, based in Topeka, and three of its members: Fred Phelps Sr., who founded the church in 1955, and two of his daughters, Shirley Phelps-Roper and Rebekah Phelps-Davis.

Church members picket military funerals out of a belief that the war in Iraq is a punishment for the nation's tolerance of homosexuality.

The nine-member jury found that the protesters invaded Snyder's privacy and caused him "mental pain and suffering, fright, nervousness, indignity, humiliation, embarrassment and insult." Snyder sobbed when the verdict was announced.

The jury awarded Snyder $2.9 million in compensatory damages. It later awarded $6 million in punitive damages for invasion of privacy and $2 million for causing emotional distress.

The case appears headed for appeal. The Phelpses filed a motion asking for a mistrial, citing judicial bias, but Judge Richard Bennett denied the request.

Snyder attorney Craig Trebilcock had urged jurors to determine an amount "that says don't do this in Maryland again. Do not bring your circus of hate to Maryland again."

The defense said it planned to appeal, and Phelps-Roper said the members would continue to picket military funerals.

"Absolutely; don't you understand this was an act in futility?" she said.

Church members routinely picket funerals of military personnel killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, carrying signs such as "Thank God for dead soldiers."

Snyder claimed the protests intruded upon what should have been a private ceremony and sullied his memory of the event.

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The church's attorneys maintained in closing arguments Tuesday that the burial was a public event and that even abhorrent points of view are protected by the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of speech and religion.

A number of states, including Washington, have passed laws regarding funeral protests, and Congress has passed a law prohibiting such protests at federal cemeteries. But the Maryland lawsuit is believed to be the first filed by the family of a fallen serviceman.

Washington this year passed a law that would keep disorderly demonstrators at least 500 feet away from funeral homes, services and processions. Protesters could be charged with disorderly conduct, a misdemeanor that carries a maximum $1,000 fine and 90 days in jail.

Before the jury began deliberating the size of punitive damages, Bennett noted that the size of the compensatory award "far exceeds the net worth of the defendants," according to financial statements filed with the court.

Defense lawyer Jonathan Katz said the church has about 75 members, is funded by tithing and that the assets of the church and the three defendants are less than $1 million.

Material from Seattle Times archives is included in this report.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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