Mock Supreme Court hears Westboro Baptist case

Hillary Huber and Zarmeena Waseem
Contributing Writers

A mock Supreme Court hearing of the upcoming Snyder v. Phelps case was held Sunday Sept. 26 in the Student Commons Theater.

In conjunction with the First Freedom Center and the University of Richmond School of Law, VCU’s Wilder School and Religious Studies department hosted the mock hearing in the VCU Student Commons to an audience of about 250 people.

The hearing imitated the case Snyder v. Phelps, which is to be heard by the Supreme Court on Oct. 6. The case deals with the funeral of Marine Lieutenant Corporal Matthew Snyder, who died in March 2006.

Seven members of the Westboro Baptist Church held a protest outside Snyder’s funeral, bearing its trademark signs like “God Hates Fags” and “Thank God For Dead Soldiers.”

Snyder’s father sued the Church and was awarded $5 million in punitive damages. However, the case was heard by the 4th Circuit of Appeals and the previous ruling was overturned. Judges on the 4th Circuit ruled that the Westboro Baptist members were protected by the First Amendment.

The case’s central question: Can the First Amendment shield protesters at a funeral from liability for intentionally causing emotional distress on the family members of the deceased?

At the hearing’s opening, University of Richmond School of Law’s Dean John Douglass introduced the case.

Students from the School of Law at the University of Richmond served as justices in the hearing.

Snyder, the petitioner, was represented was William Hurd, former Solicitor General and partner at Troutman Sanders, LLP. Arguing for the Respondent was Margie Phelps, who serves as legal counsel for the Westboro Baptist Church and is herself a member.

The role of “petitioner” in a Supreme Court hearing is much like that of the “Plaintiff.” The defense is known as the “Respondent.”

Much of Sunday’s debate hinged on the nature of the soldier’s well-publicized funeral.

According to Hurd, the seven members of the Westboro Baptist Church who picketed Snyder’s funeral “carried out their plan of intentionally targeting in order to emotionally harm and that makes the act inexcusable.”

His argument hinged on the notion that Albert Snyder was a private citizen attending a private service, despite his comments to various media outlets and the very public nature of his son’s funeral.

Margie Phelps argued that because the Westboro Baptist Church were on public ground and 1,000 feet away from the actual funeral, the protestors were not breaking any laws. She also argued that the protests did not target Snyder’s funeral specifically, but addressed national issues.

“(The protestors) did so with fervent belief, and religious conviction, that they had to participate in the debate and had to do so at that location,” Phelps said.

As a result, counselor Phelps maintained that “there was no impact on the funeral due to location and distance.”

Members of the church attended Snyder’s funeral to protest gays and lesbians in the military, and held signs with messages like, “Semper Fi Fags,” “You’re going to Hell,” and “God hates you.”

After the hearing, the hearing’s organizers held a public Q&A session.

Ben Fehl, a VCU forensic science, chemistry, and biology graduate, said he had to leave the mock trial early. “I’m transgendered, so this is very important to me, especially when they protested at a soldier’s funeral who wasn’t even gay. I just didn’t want to sit and listen to (Phelps) anymore,” Fehl said.

Elsie Swale, a freshman pre-nursing major, said comes from a military family. “I know the trouble that military families go through, and the sacrifices soldiers have to make. To know that (the Westboro Baptist Church) does horrible things to those families makes me so angry,” Swale said. “I know they stay in America because they are allowed to say the stuff they do about (gays in) the military, but why would they hate the people that fight so that she can have the right to say those types of things?”

On Oct. 6, The Supreme Court will hear the case, during which Margie Phelps will argue on behalf of the Westboro Baptist Church.

University of Richmond student Clayton LaForge, who served as one of the “justices,” said that this debate was held due to it’s popularity and media attention. He added that “it is likely that the Supreme Court will rule that the Westboro Baptist Church deserves valid protection.”

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