A Tragedy Disguised as Christian Witness

Today was a sad day for the cause of Christ; a Christian church was freed from five million dollars in damages by the U. S. Supreme Court. What is sad about that? Read on.

First, Chief Justice John Roberts summarizes: “Fred Phelps founded the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, in 1955. The church’s congregation believes that God hates and punishes the United States for its tolerance of homosexuality, particularly in America’s military. The church frequently communicates its views by picketing, often at military funerals.” Snyder v. Phelps, 562 U.S. ____ (2011), page 1.

About 20 years ago, pastor Phelps hit on a strategy to get attention for his message. Justice Samuel Alito describes this media strategy in his dissent:
“As the Court notes, church members have protested at nearly 600 military funerals. . . . They have also picketed the funerals of police officers, firefighters, and the victims of natural disasters, accidents, and shocking crimes. And in advance of these protests, they issue press releases to ensure that their protests will attract public attention.
“This strategy works because it is expected that respondents’ verbal assaults will wound the family and friends of the deceased and because the media is irresistibly drawn to the sight of persons who are visibly in grief. The more outrageous the funeral protest, the more publicity the Westboro Baptist Church is able to obtain. Thus, when the church recently announced its intention to picket the funeral of a 9-year-old girl killed in the shooting spree in Tucson — proclaiming that she was ‘better off dead’ — their announcement was national news, and the church was able to obtain free air time on the radio in exchange for canceling its protest.” Snyder v. Phelps, 562 U.S. ____ (2011), Allito, J. (dissenting) pages 5–6.

Using this cruel strategy, Phelps and others from his church targeted the funeral of Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder, who was killed in Iraq in the line of duty. To do so, they drove from Topeka, Kansas, to Westminster, Maryland, after issuing a press release to make sure of media coverage. At the funeral and two nearby locations these supposed Christians carried signs. Chief Justice Roberts says: “The Westboro picketers carried signs that were largely the same at all three locations. They stated, for instance: ‘God Hates the USA/Thank God for 9/11,’ ‘America is Doomed,’ ‘Don’t Pray  for the USA,’ ‘Thank  God for IEDs,’ ‘Thank  God for Dead Soldiers,’ ‘Pope in Hell,’ ‘Priests Rape Boys,’ ‘God Hates Fags,’ ‘You’re Going to Hell,’ and ‘God Hates You.’” Snyder v. Phelps, 562 U.S. ____ (2011), page 2.

A federal jury found Phelps, the church and others guilty of inflicting emotional distress upon the Snyders and assessed total damages at 10.9 million dollars. The district court reduced the damages to five million dollars. The Supreme Court reduced the damages to zero saying that Westboro Baptist Church was entitled to protection under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Certainly this case proves that the U.S. Constitution did not fall from heaven, though it has generally served us well. The fact that Christians are behaving in ways that satisfy the Constitution means nothing when they are defying the commands of Christ and causing untold damage to the cause of Christ.

There can be no doubt that homosexuality is abhorrent to God (Rom. 1:24–27). But Matthew Snyder was not homosexual. Even if the facts were otherwise, Jesus told us to love our enemies, not hate them (Matt. 5:44). Worse still, the behavior of Westboro Baptist Church members is regularly causing great anger that can only hurt the gospel. The Court stated, “Westboro believes that America is morally flawed; many Americans might feel the same about Westboro.” Snyder v. Phelps, 562 U.S. ____ (2011), page 14. They can and they do!

Westboro Baptist Church is tragically wrong. They are just like those who shot and killed an abortion doctor in the pew of a church. When did Christians start thinking they could combat evil by doing evil? And what will happen when America no longer wants to tolerate Christians who are willing to commit sin in the name of Christ?

Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide.

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