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'That's the Way They Saw It'

By Charles D. Brunt
Copyright © 2011 Albuquerque Journal
Journal Staff Writer

          The father of a Rio Rancho soldier whose 2006 funeral was picketed by a fundamentalist church said he had hoped "for a little bit more wisdom" from the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled Wednesday that church members' rights to free speech trump the pain inflicted by their hateful demonstrations.
        "But that's the way they saw it, and there's nothing that I can do about it except keep on loving the poor folks who have to endure this," said Robert Jordan, whose son Army Spec. Alexander Jordan, 31, was killed in Baghdad.
        "Maybe this will mobilize people to be more proactive about blocking out these people when they do show up."
        In an 8-1 decision, with Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. dissenting, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Topeka, Kan.-based Westboro Baptist Church, a fundamentalist group founded by pastor Fred Phelps and comprised almost entirely of family members.
        The church has gained notoriety by picketing at funerals of fallen warriors with signs claiming "God Hates You," "Thank God for Dead Soldiers," "God Hates Fag Soldiers" and similar slogans, claiming God is punishing America for its tolerance of homosexuality.
        Wednesday's ruling came in a lawsuit brought by a Pennsylvania man whose son's funeral was one of those targeted by Phelps' followers.
        Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote that such picketing "is certainly hurtful and its contribution to public discourse may be negligible." But he said government "cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker."
        "As a nation we have chosen a different course — to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate," Roberts said.
        Four members of the Westboro church picketed outside the Sept. 21, 2006, funeral of Alexander Jordan in Rio Rancho. Jordan, 31, had been killed 11 days earlier when his Stryker unit was attacked by insurgents in Baghdad.
        Robert Jordan, a staunch supporter of free speech, said in a Journal interview last year that he was conflicted over the pain the Westboro group caused his family and the free-speech rights his son fought to preserve.
        "Whatever pain I might have felt is minor in comparison to the bigger issue" of free speech, he said in the interview. "It's part of what makes America unique and beautiful. I don't have to like it, but I'm damned sure going to tolerate it. My son died for it."
        Reached at his home late Wednesday afternoon, Jordan viewed the ruling with acceptance and puzzlement.
        "I cannot speak to their (Supreme Court's) reasoning. I have not read their decision, just that they have ruled in favor of the hateful folks there in Kansas.
        "I guess they must have had their good reasons in ruling," he said. "I'm a bit disappointed, but the sun is still going to come up in the east tomorrow, and people are still going to do what they do. I'm not going to take to the streets or go crazy over this."
        Wednesday's decision ended a lawsuit by Albert Snyder, who sued church members for the emotional pain they caused by showing up at his son's 2006 funeral in Westminster, Md. Snyder's son, Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, 20, also died in Iraq.
        Snyder filed a lawsuit accusing the Phelpses of intentionally inflicting emotional distress. He won $11 million at trial, later reduced by a judge to $5 million.
        The federal appeals court in Richmond, Va., threw out the verdict and said the Constitution shielded the church members from liability. The Supreme Court agreed.
        Justice Samuel Alito, the lone dissenter, said Snyder wanted only to "bury his son in peace."
        Instead, Alito said, the protesters "brutally attacked" Matthew Snyder to attract public attention. "Our profound national commitment to free and open debate is not a license for the vicious verbal assault that occurred in this case," he said.
        'What's a fella to do?'
        Jordan, whose family was subjected a similar demonstration at his son's funeral, expressed empathy for Albert Snyder.
        "I do feel sorry for Mr. Snyder, to have gone through all of this without a better resolution," Jordan said. "But I'm certain he feels justified in having taken it as far as he did."
        At a Wednesday news conference in York, Pa., Snyder said, "My first thought was, eight justices don't have the common sense God gave a goat. We found out today we can no longer bury our dead in this country with dignity."
        Margie Phelps, one of Phelps' daughters and a lawyer who argued the case at the Supreme Court, said she expected the outcome. "The only surprise is that Justice Alito did not feel compelled to follow his oath," Phelps said. "We read the law. We follow the law. The only way for a different ruling is to shred the First Amendment."
        She also offered her church's view of the decision. "I think it's pretty self-explanatory, but here's the core point: the wrath of God is pouring onto this land. Rather than trying to shut us up, use your platforms to tell this nation to mourn for your sins."
        That sentiment puzzles Robert Jordan.
        "What's a fella to do?," he asked. "You just keep soldiering on, love your family as best you can and be kind to whomever you run across — and don't worry about the small stuff that you can't change."
        Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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