Martin C. Evans

Court OK For Fringe Church Free Speech Angers Gold Stars

In Uncategorized on March 2, 2011 at 11:58 pm

Moe Fletcher knows the pain of burying a soldier son.

That is why Fletcher and many other members of Long Island’s “Gold Star” families are livid that the nation’s highest court ruled Wednesday that protest demonstrations targeting funerals are protected by the First Amendment.

Protesters at 2005 funeral of an Afghanistan War casualty from Massachusetts. (Life Magazine photo)

“This is extremely hurtful to people who have already gone through a lot,” said Fletcher, who called me within minutes of the Supreme Court ruling’s announcement in Washington.

Fletcher’s son, Spc. Jacob Fletcher, was killed in a 2003 IED explosion while serving in Iraq. Since then, the Island Park resident has been an active supporter of grieving military families.

The 8-1 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, which united liberal and conservative justices, upheld the right of members of Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church to travel the country and stage quixotic protest rallies at military funerals.

Members of the church believe America’s problems stem from the increasing acceptance of homosexuals within mainstream society, especially the military. The church’s more than 600 protests in the past two decades have taken on a bewildering range of targets, from AIDS victims to the military to President Obama.

The court ruling stemmed from a case involving a 2006 incident, during which church members carrying banners that read “Fags Doom Nations,” and “Thank God For Dead Soldiers” picketed the Westminster, Md. funeral of a Marine killed in Iraq. The Marine’s father filed a lawsuit seeking damages, saying picketers had turned his son’s funeral into a “circus.”

Last year, church members threatened to picket the funeral of Joseph Theinert, an Army lieutenant from Shelter Island who was killed in Afghanistan. Though picketers never arrived, Suffolk legislators rushed through a law designed to bar demonstrations near funerals. Yesterday’s near-unanimous court ruling would appear to jeopardize that law’s constitutionality.

Chief Justice John Roberts, who drafted the majority opinion, wrote that the court’s decision hinged on the right of Americans to express opinions, even should they “…may fall short of refined social or political commentary.”

“….The issues they highlight – the political and moral conduct of the United States and its citizens, the fate of our nation, homosexuality in the military, and scandals involving the Catholic clergy – are matters of public import…” Roberts wrote.

But Fletcher says all but the court’s lone dissenter – Justice Antonin Scalia – got it wrong.

“These people desecrate the flag, drag it through the mud,” Fletcher said. “Gold Star families have already given so much. They shouldn’t have to go through something like that while they are burying a loved one.”

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