The following editorial appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on Tuesday, July 7:

Both Thomas Jefferson and the 18th-century French philosopher Voltaire, from whom Jefferson borrowed many of his ideas, are given credit for the memorable phrase, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Actually it may have been one of Voltaire’s biographers, but never mind. The point is, none of them ever met Fred Phelps.

Phelps is pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., most of whose 71 members are members of his family; the church is either a cult or a hate group or both, depending on which of his critics is talking.

Phelps first gained national notoriety in 1998 for picketing at the funeral of Matthew Shepard, the 21-year-old Wyoming man who was tortured and beaten to death because of his homosexuality.

Since then, Phelps has extended his message of “God’s hatred” to Jews, blacks, Catholics, Lutherans, Canadians, Swedes and numerous other groups, including the U.S. government. Since 2005, he and members of his church have showed up at funerals for U.S. soldiers and Marines killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, screaming that their deaths were God’s punishment to the United States for tolerating homosexuality.

Last week the U.S. Supreme Court handed Phelps and his daughter, Shirley Phelps-Roper, a kind of indirect victory. The court declined to review a decision by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis that has kept the state of Missouri from enforcing a law that would have stopped Phelps and his followers from protesting at military funerals.

In 2006, the Missouri Legislature — shocked at the grief and disruption that the Westboro group caused at the funeral of Army Specialist Edward Lee Myers of St. Joseph, killed in Iraq on July 27, 2005 — enacted a law making it unlawful to picket “in front of or about any location at which a funeral is to be held.”

Phelps-Roper challenged the law in U.S. District Court in Kansas City, requesting a preliminary injunction to prevent the state from enforcing the law until her lawsuit could be heard. Judge Fernando Gaitan denied the motion. She appealed, and last October the Eighth Circuit reversed Judge Gaitan, ruling in effect that the language of the Missouri law is not specific enough.

With the Supreme Court’s decision not to review the appeals court ruling, the Westboro group is free to picket funerals in Missouri at least until a court rules on the merits of the constitutional arguments. The case is set for trial next summer.

The ironies here are heartbreakingly absurd. The Westboro group causes disruption at the final salutes to men and women who died serving a nation that guarantees the right of free speech. It’s hard to imagine anyone being so hateful. But they are.

The Westboro church is being assisted in its case by the Eastern Missouri Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, an organization that traditionally has defended the civil rights of gays, blacks, Jews and Catholics, the very people who Phelps says are going to hell.

And the Westboro church — as fringe as a fringe group can be — depends utterly on the publicity generated by its very hatefulness, thriving on rights guaranteed by a government it condemns to hell.

There are ways to guarantee free speech without licensing hate speech. We trust the courts will find them.


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