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It’s Painful, But the ACLU Should Defend Fred Phelps July 23, 2006

Posted by newsfittopost in anti-gay activists, legal, lgbt Issues, religion distorted.

Shirley Phelps-Roper, spokesman for anti-gay hate group Westboro Baptist “Church”:

I told the nation, as each state went after these laws, that if the day came that they got in our way, that we would sue them. At this hour, the wrath of God is pouring out on this country.

A true ideological dilemma. As Fred Phelps and his incestuous family began protesting outside military funerals with signs thanking God for dead American soldiers, lawmakers at both the local, state and federal level began passing laws banning protests at funerals. Phelps claims God is punishing America and its soldiers for the nation’s acceptance of gay and lesbian people.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which claims free speech rights as one of its main causes, has filed a lawsuit on behalf of Fred Phelps. The lawsuit argues that a Missouri law banning protests for an hour before and after funerals is unconstitutional because it infringes on Fred Phelps’ freedom of speech. The ACLU has taken up the case despite Fred Phelps’ protests at the funerals of AIDS victims and gay hate crime victims such as Matthew Shepard.

Liberals and many LGBT advocates have harshly criticized the ACLU for the lawsuit, arguing that its defense of a group that wishes death on gay and lesbian people is contrary to progressive politics and the ACLU’s mission. As a gay man who works in the LGBT movement, it is hard to stomach the thought of the heroic ACLU using its resources to support a hate group like Westboro Baptist Church, but I believe the organization is doing the right thing.

It is important to forget the plaintiff in this case and instead analyze the law being challenged. Although protesting at the funerals of innocent and good people is a repulsive use of free speech, I believe this right must be upheld. If the courts allow free speech rights to be taken away during funerals, where else will lawmakers find a constitutional right to block protests or rallies? If gay rights advocates want to protest outside Westboro Baptist Church or another anti-gay religious institution, will conservative lawmakers pass a ban on protesting outside houses of worship? The precedent is a scary one and I commend the ACLU for looking past the plaintiff to realize free speech needs to be defended.

I would also argue that the ACLU is not harming the LGBT movement by allowing Fred Phelps to continue his “God Hates Fags” protests. Although it hurts to watch such a hateful man focus all his energy on condemning a particular community, I believe ordinary Americans are also turned off by such demonstrations. When mourners at a military funeral see Phelps with signs that say “God Loves Dead Soldiers” and “Fags Die, God Laughs”, there is the potential for an empathetic connection between two groups that are often times at odds: the gay and lesbian community and military families. These protests can help conservatives understand the viciousness behind anti-gay spokespeople and may result in changed hearts and minds.

Even Focus on the Family has denounced Fred Phelps and his entourage as “real haters within the church”. This condemnation was not done out of love for gay people, but because Focus on the Family realizes that this intense hatred backfires and creates sympathy for the gay and lesbian people who must cope with such vile rhetoric. Fred Phelps is too extreme… his protests help bridge an understanding between everyday Americans and the gay and lesbian community.

Where my frustration lies is not with the ACLU, which is acting appropriately, but with the lawmakers sitting in Congress and state legislatures throughout the country. I do not agree with laws banning funeral protests, but I wonder why such legislation is being proposed at this time. Why is it that lawmakers feel Phelps has crossed a moral line by protesting at military funerals, ignoring the fact that he has demonstrated outside the funerals of gay hate crime victims for years? Are dead soldiers on one-side of a moral line and gay hate crime victims on the other side? Why didn’t lawmakers who believe in this law stand up for gay and lesbian people who have faced years of Fred Phelps torture? There is a true political calculation in those supporting this flawed law banning the protests.

I hope the ACLU is successful in defending Fred Phelps’ right to free speech. A loss for the ACLU and Fred Phelps is a loss for all progressives who believe community organizing and demonstrations are vital parts of affecting policy in Washington. The ACLU has been a leader in standing up for LGBT rights and it has not turned its back on the community by defending Fred Phelps. A win for Phelps is a win for the gay community: our free speech rights remain intact and Phelps is able to continue his anti-gay crusade that turns moderates away from the anti-gay right.

Another benefit of overturning the ban on funeral protests: the LGBT community can show up in droves once Fred Phelps leaves this Earth for the fiery pit he claims gay people are heading to.

I can imagine that many disagree with my position. On this issue especially, I understand dissent. Here are some blogs with varying positions on the ACLU’s defense of Phelps:

From on High – Leave it to the ACLU

short-term memory loss – Goodbye ACLU

Calumet Chapter: ACLU of Indiana – An Example Of The ACLU Standing Up For Religious Freedom

Blue Crab Boulevard – Lie Down With Dogs

Reformed Chicks Blabbing – Free Speech and the ACLU

The Turner Report – ACLU Sues on Behalf of Funeral Picketers

Toadpond – ACLU Gets It Wrong … Again

Alternate Brain – Yo, Dickheads


1. Moderate with Brains - July 23, 2006

Your arguments make some sense, but you must realize that tons of gay people are giving money to the ACLU, including myself. It makes me sick to think that some of my money, and thousands of ACLU dollars, will be going to a man that would happily watch every gay person in the world die of AIDS. The only thing that would upset him about it is that he wouldn’t be able to make it to all the funerals. It’s one hell of a catch-22.

2. Fixer - July 23, 2006

It’s one hell of a catch-22.

It’s what makes this country unique in the world and what we’re sorely in danger if losing. From my post:

“The ACLU protects all of us, defending the Bill of Rights and the Constitution for anyone who’s freedoms have been usurped or abrogated, even those who should be first up against the wall when the revolution comes.”

3. J.P. - July 23, 2006

It can be argued that this isn’t necessarily a free speech issue as much as it is a harassment issue. The Westboro members are selectively approaching graveside ceremonies as opposed to rallying in a park or on a street–in some cases against family members who might be opposed to the Iraqi War in the first place.

It’s essentially like those of us who oppose the Westboro group going after them in particular if they’re on the street, following them with protest signs and screaming obscenities at them to show how much we can’t stand them. In such a case we’d be going beyond ordinary rights of free speech and assembly to blatant harassment and possibly even stalking.

Either way, we can agree that Phelps and his ilk are evil people.

4. CARRIE - July 26, 2006

The ACLU is a POS organization, that has in the past defending NAMBLA an organization for child molestors and now they defend this hateful man in Fred Phelps… Funds need to stop being sent to the ACLU period.

5. t - July 26, 2006

J.P.: Your ignorance of the facts of these cases is glaring.

Carrie: I hope the ACLU still exists to defend the right of organizations to which you belong to be heard when they fall out of favor.

6. Jim Downey - July 27, 2006

J.P. said “It can be argued that this isn’t necessarily a free speech issue as much as it is a harassment issue. The Westboro members are selectively approaching graveside ceremonies as opposed to rallying in a park or on a street–in some cases against family members who might be opposed to the Iraqi War in the first place.”

I have suggested the same approach on the Calumet Chapter of the Indiana ACLU. The right to assemble and express an idea is protected. However, other unlawfulness is not protected in the process. While the group gathering does not meet the “fight words” exception to free speech, it does, as has been reported in some media outlets, rise to the level of slander. In most states, some of what the Westboro group has been attributed as saying could be prosecuted, both civilly and criminally, for the tort of slander. If the group demonstrates a pattern of showing up for these specific reasons, and does so in a targetted manner, there MIGHT be grounds for a civil harassment litigation and room for an TRO, but this would have to be done on a case-by-case basis and the litigation would have to go after the assets of the church and the protest organizers. But the ACLU is defending the principles of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, not the legitimacy of the content of the speech or protest offered by the Westboro fanatics. In our form of government and society, we tolerate fanatical ideas, but not fanatical actions that cause harm or impede the rights of others. There method of stopping these morons from being so offensive is not to preclude their sppech, but go after their unlawful behaviors and sue until they no longer have any assets to use for these purposes.

7. My Community Place - August 31, 2006

ACLU sues over law on funeral protests.

The ACLU has filed a suit challenging the new state law in Ohio which restricts political demonstrations at funerals. SICK!

8. Guest - July 31, 2010

“Why is it that lawmakers feel Phelps has crossed a moral line by protesting at military funerals, ignoring the fact that he has demonstrated outside the funerals of gay hate crime victims for years?”
I think the lawmakers respond to complaints from the dead victims families. If they are bothered about Phelps’ protesting, they have to write to their congressmen and get laws in place to ban them.
Frankly, I was shocked that Snyder sued Phelps and won (at first) $11 million in compensation, but it doesn’t sound like Judy Shepard, Matthew’s mother, ever brought any lawsuit against WBC. I have to wonder why not. I’ll bet she would have won a couple mill as well, if the ACLU didn’t step in…..

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