In an 8-1 decision, the Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the Westboro Baptist Church would not have to pay damages to the parents of Lance Cpl. Matthew A. Snyder, protecting the church’s right to hold anti-gay protests at military funerals. Chief Justice Roberts, speaking for the majority, ruled that while “speech … can inflict great pain,” those doing the speaking cannot not be held accountable. In this case, the speakers — the members of Westboro Baptist Church — had conducted a protest on public property 1,000 feet away from the funeral service for recently slain Lance Cpl. Matthews. The group believes the deaths of soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan are punishment from God for America’s increasing tolerance of homosexuality. With signs like “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” and “God Hates Fags,” the group has raised the ire of both the military and the LGBTQ communities. The father of the deceased soldier, Albert Snyder, sued the group for emotional damages. After winning a $5 million award in a lower court, the ruling was overturned by a court of appeals. The Supreme Court upheld that second ruling.
Given that I am a supporter of gay rights and considering a career in the military, it may seem surprising that I support Justice Roberts’ decision. It shouldn’t be. The battle for acceptance of gay rights will not be won in the courts. It will be won in dining rooms and living rooms across America, by water coolers and during coffee breaks. Acceptance cannot be won through legislation. The fires of intolerance will only be extinguished when those who bear prejudice are brought to see the error of their beliefs. Government cannot do this through edict. Rather, the surest way to achieve this is through discussion, debate and empathy. I myself was ambivalent on issues of gay rights until close friends began to come out. I respect them for their courage; coming out cannot be easy. However, hiding from hatred or hiding hatred itself, as a ruling against Westboro would have done, achieves nothing. Whether publicly or privately, the members of Westboro church will hate. The courts cannot change their minds. That is up to the rest of us.
Furthermore, we must remember that freedom of speech does not just protect the Westboro Baptist Church. It protects every civil rights worker, every gay rights activist, every feminist, in short, every dissenter who dares step forward and speak against injustice. The definition of “emotionally harmful” is too nebulous, too elastic to determine who has the right to speak and what they have the right to speak about. The same logic that would have restricted the Westboro protests could have been easily twisted to silence those working to promote positive change.
My heart goes out to the parents of Lance Cpl. Snyder. He was a noble man who gave his life in the defense of our nation. We cannot come close to understanding the pain that his parents must feel, but we can offer them our sympathy. And they should know this: though the Westboro group may have survived this court ruling, every time they speak hatefully and every time they mistreat an American flag, they only degrade themselves further. They drag themselves further from the God whose mercy they forget and whose love they mock. They can only marginalize themselves more by their activities. Even as the courts took their side, the nation steps to that of the Snyder family, and, in the end, that counts more than the cold mechanical words of the law.
So I say to Justice Roberts, thank you. Thank you for not silencing the Westboro Baptist Church; the more they speak, the more people will realize how distasteful they truly are. Thank you for refusing to let us hide from this issue; thanks to you, we will continue the process, however difficult, of extending acceptance to people of all sexual orientations. Thank you for limiting the right of government to interfere with issues of personal identity. When it comes time to allow gay marriage nationwide, I hope that you remember that, just as the government has no right to limit the harmful, hateful words of the Westboro Baptist Church, neither does it have any right to restrict the harmless, loving words, “I do.”
Ben Daus-Haberle is a junior in Saybrook College.