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Jury awards grieving father nearly $11 million in verdict against military funeral protesters

Funeral_protest_sff_embedded_prod_aBALTIMORE -- A grieving father won a nearly $11 million verdict Wednesday against a fundamentalist Kansas church that pickets military funerals out of a belief that the war in Iraq is a punishment for the nation's tolerance of homosexuality.

Albert Snyder of York, Pa., sued the Westboro Baptist Church for unspecified damages after members demonstrated at the March 2006 funeral of his son, Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, who was killed in Iraq.

The jury first awarded $2.9 million in compensatory damages. It returned later in the afternoon with its decision to award $6 million in punitive damages for invasion of privacy and $2 million for causing emotional distress.

U.S. District Judge Richard Bennett noted the size of the award for compensating damages "far exceeds the net worth of the defendants," according to financial statements filed with the court.

Church members routinely picket funerals of military personnel killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, carrying signs such as "Thank God for dead soldiers" and "God hates fags."

A number of states have passed laws regarding funeral protests, and Congress has passed a law prohibiting such protests at federal cemeteries. But the Maryland lawsuit is believed to be the first filed by the family of a fallen serviceman.

The church and three of its leaders - the Rev. Fred Phelps and his two daughters, Shirley Phelps-Roper and Rebecca Phelps-Davis, 46 - were found liable for invasion of privacy and intent to inflict emotional distress.

Snyder claimed the protests intruded upon what should have been a private ceremony and sullied his memory of the event.

The church members testified they are following their religious beliefs by spreading the message that the deaths of soldiers are due to the nation's tolerance of homosexuality.

Their attorneys argued in closing statements Tuesday that the burial was a public event and that even abhorrent points of view are protected by the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of speech and religion.

The judge said the church's financial statements, sealed earlier, could be released to the plaintiffs.

Earlier, church members staged a demonstration outside the federal courthouse. Church founder Fred Phelps held a sign reading "God is your enemy," while Shirley Phelps-Roper stood on an American flag and carried a sign that read "God hates fag enablers." Members of the group sang "God Hates America" to the tune of "God Bless America."

Snyder sobbed when he heard the verdict, while members of the church greeted the news with tightlipped smiles.

Photo by Dylan Slagle / AP
Westboro Baptist church member Gabriel Phelps-Roper, 10, and his sister Grace Phelps-Roper, 13, both of Topeka, Kan., protest at the funeral of Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew A. Snyder in Westminster, Md. in this March 10, 2006, file photo.

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