The Supreme Court recently upheld, on First Amendment grounds, a federal appeals court’s decision to overturn a verdict awarding millions to the father of the late Matthew Snyder.
The decision represents an interesting – some would say tragic – irony in the unfolding drama surrounding the Fred Phelps family, aka Westboro Baptist Church, of Topeka, Kan.
The church serves as a front for the aging Phelps, a fundamentalist Baptist preacher and disbarred attorney who leads this so-called congregation of mostly his children – at least two of whom are also lawyers.
The entourage has gained a controversial reputation for its vulgar protests at the funerals of U.S. soldiers.
The Phelps claim that the deaths of our nation’s soldiers in at least two ongoing wars are the result of God’s judgment on America for embracing homosexuality. Or as Phelps so crudely puts it, “God hates fags!”
The case before the Supreme Court stemmed from a 2006 incident at which “church members” demonstrated at the funeral of Snyder, a Marine killed in Iraq. The young man’s father sued the Phelps and was awarded a sizable sum, only to have the verdict overturned later on appeal.
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution ensures “freedom of speech” as well as freedom of and from religion.
As president of the Charleston Chapter of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, I am more often involved with the latter of these two freedoms.
The recent 8-1 Supreme Court decision drew its conclusion based on the former, a decision that the Phelps family has applauded for vindicating the righteousness of their cause. Others, who abhor how Westboro Baptist Church has so narrowly defined itself, denounce the decision.
Such criticism of this latest Supreme Court decision reminds me of a moving scene from Robert Bolt’s “A Man for All Seasons.” Set in 16th-century England, it concerns Chancellor Thomas More’s refusal to endorse King Henry VIII’s scandalous divorce from his aging wife, Catherine of Aragon, in order to marry the younger Anne Boleyn.
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As the plot unfolds, William Roper urges Chancellor More to unlawfully arrest his adversary, Richard Rich, whose eventual perjury will lead to More’s execution. More reminds Roper that “even the devil is protected by law,” but the young Roper is appalled by such a conviction.
More replies: “What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get to the devil? … and when the last law was down, and the devil turned round on you – where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws from coast to coast, man’s laws, not God’s, and if you cut them down – and you’re just the man to do it – do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? I give the devil benefit of law for my own safety’s sake!”
Phelps claims to be a Christian minister. As a fundamentalist, he selectively reads the Bible. Worse, when it comes to his particular obsession, he eisegetes (reads into the Bible) what the Bible hardly addresses: what is understood today as sexual orientation, a concept foreign to Scripture.
In his selective and eisegetical reading of the Bible, however, Phelps has obviously failed to notice a profound principle of Christian ethics. It’s an axiom St. Paul states twice in his first letter to the Corinthians. In both 1 Corinthians 6:12 and 1 Corinthians 10:23, Paul writes: “All things are lawful, but not all things are helpful; [indeed] all things are lawful, but not all things edify.”
In this context, Paul is writing about a controversy among Christians in the ancient Greek city of Corinth. At least and at best, he is imploring those followers of Jesus to exercise good manners in their social relations, even among those with whom they may deeply disagree.
Granted, Christians are “free, in Christ,” as Paul would say it – just as we Americans, thanks to the First Amendment, enjoy “freedom of speech,” however repugnant such speech may sometimes seem.
According to Paul, however, the monitoring and moderating of such freedom, at least for Christians, is just as important as the freedom itself. This sensitivity toward others, however different or even deluded they may be, forms part of the Christian ethical balance between conviction and consideration.
Unfortunately, Fred Phelps and those like him have failed to understand Paul’s penetrating principle of Christian ethics.