Like, tolerating the intolerable. Ugliness and outrageous offenses defended by the very people who gave their lives for that right. It really pushes the limits…

The Supreme Court heard the Westboro Church case, and it’s a tough one to reconcile or defend.

“Speech is powerful. It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and — as it did here — inflict great pain. On the facts before us, we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority.

At issue was a delicate test between the privacy rights of grieving families and the free speech rights of demonstrators, however disturbing and provocative their message. Several states have attempted to impose specific limits on when and where the church members can protest.

The church, led by pastor Fred Phelps, believes God is punishing the United States for “the sin of homosexuality” through events including soldiers’ deaths. Members have traveled the country shouting at grieving families at funerals and displaying such signs as “Thank God for dead soldiers,” “God blew up the troops” and “AIDS cures fags.”

This seems impossible to defend, each and every time we’re subjected to those signs near a funeral site. Without repeating the slogans they use to taunt media and mourners, suffice it to say they strain credulity and tolerance of speech rights that offend human and religious sensibilities.

Here’s part of Chief Justice John Roberts’ opinion:

“Westboro believes that America is morally flawed; many Americans might feel the same about Westboro. Westboro’s funeral picketing is certainly hurtful and its contribution to public discourse may be negligible,” he said. However, “As a nation we have chosen a different course — to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate.”

Furthermore…

Only Justice Samuel Alito dissented. He said the church’s “outrageous conduct caused petitioner great injury, and the court now compounds that injury by depriving petitioner of a judgment that acknowledges the wrong he suffered,” he said. “In order to have a society in which public issues can be openly and vigorously debated, it is not necessary to allow the brutalization of innocent victims like petitioner.”…

John Ellsworth, chairman of Military Families United, said the military protects the First Amendment rights that members of Westboro Baptist use to protest.

“Gold Star families deserve the respect of a grateful nation, not hate from a group who chooses to demonstrate during the funeral of their loved one,” he said. “My family has been on the receiving end of their hate and I assure all Gold Star families, this group is an anomaly and your sacrifice does not go without notice.”

Such an anomaly, it’s hard to report on this one. We have to protect free speech. But if this is what it takes

At least the tension in this case has drawn people of goodwill from different quarters vowing to provide a buffer zone for grieving families.

Freedom is vital, but it does have limits.

Sheila Liaugminas

Sheila Liaugminas is an Emmy award-winning Chicago-based journalist in print and broadcast media. Her writing and broadcasting covers matters of faith, culture, politics and the media....