The court upheld what is known as First Amendment rights for the protesters, who believe that the military deaths in combat are God’s punishment for tolerance of homosexuality in the United States.
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects freedom of speech, freedom of religion and freedom of peaceable assembly.
The high court’s majority opinion was written by Chief Justice John Roberts who said speech is powerful and can stir people to action and also inflict great pain. Roberts said the nation had long decided to protect even hurtful speech on public issues so that public debate is not stifled.
The decision follows oral arguments before the high court last October when church member Margie Phelps argued the case before the nine justices and later spoke to reporters.
“The rule of law is that the mere fact that you take offense at words or call yourself having your feelings hurt over words is not enough to shut up the speech,” said Phelps.
Margie Phelps is the daughter of the Reverend Fred Phelps, the leader of the fundamentalist Westboro Baptist Church who organizes the protests that often feature signs that say “Thank God for dead soldiers””
Only one justice, Samuel Alito, dissented in the case. Alito said a national commitment to free and open debate is not a license for vicious verbal assault.
The Supreme Court was asked to decide the case after a lower federal court sided with the family of Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder, who was killed in Iraq in 2006.
Church members protested at Snyder’s funeral in Maryland, and his family sued the church group for emotional distress. A lower court sided with the Snyder family, but a federal appeals court threw out that verdict, setting the stage for a showdown at the Supreme Court.
Matthew Snyder’s father, Albert spoke to reporters after last October’s oral arguments at the Supreme Court.
“All we wanted to do was bury Matt with dignity and respect,” said Snyder. “There is a civilized way to express an opinion in America, but it does not involve intentionally inflicting emotional distress on others and intentionally harming a private citizen at a private funeral.”
Legal analysts say the ruling is one of the most significant free-speech cases to come before the Supreme Court in the past several years.