North Carolina joins suit against military funeral protesters

N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper has joined his counterparts from 47 other states and the District of Columbia in support of a lawsuit against a Topeka, Kan., church whose members picket military funerals.

The suit, scheduled to go before the U.S. Supreme Court, pits the rights of private people to assemble peacefully for a funeral — a religious ceremony — against protestors' rights to free speech.

Westboro Baptist Church, founded by Fred Phelps and consisting mostly of his relatives, has for years sent its members to picket military funerals and other events across the country.

The church teaches that U.S. troop deaths, along with AIDS, 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, mining accidents and other disasters, are an expression of God's wrath against the nation for allowing homosexuality, abortion, divorce and other things it regards as sins.

Westboro targets the military, it says, because U.S. forces fight to defend what the church sees as America's sinful ways.

As mourners arrive at solemn services for their loved ones, picketers meet them with signs that say "Thank God for Dead Soldiers," "God Hates You" and "Pray for More Dead Kids." Picketers shout slogans and sing songs that mock military service.

The group protested at the funeral of Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder in Westminster, Md., after he was killed in action in Iraq in 2006. His father, Albert Snyder, sued the group, alleging invasion of privacy, intentional infliction of emotional distress and civil conspiracy.

In 2007, a jury awarded the Snyder family $2.9 million in compensatory damages and $8 million in punitive damages. The award was later reduced and then overturned when an appeals court sided with church members who argued their First Amendment rights had been violated.

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