Many were shocked on March 2, 2011 when the Supreme Court, in an 8-1 opinion, protected the right of Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church to engage in hate speech at a soldier’s funeral. The case, known as Snyder v. Phelps, addressed the heartbreak a father experienced when Phelps’s church picketed his son’s military funeral at a Catholic Church in Westminster, Maryland. Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder was killed in Iraq in the line of duty. As they’ve done many times before, Westboro Baptist held signs along the street not far from the Catholic Church. The signs said things like “God Hates the USA/Thank God for 9/11,” “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” “Pope in Hell,” “Priests Rape Boys,” “God Hates Fags.” And just in case you weren’t offended by any of these, they added the all-inclusive sign, “God Hates You.”
This case provided an excellent opportunity for the Court to adopt the legal strategy of European and Canadian courts which have refused to protect much more benign speech that is critical of homosexual behavior. We at the ADF Church Project have been watching these foreign legal developments carefully. Some of them include a preacher arrested for saying homosexual behavior is sinful, numerous reports of Christians persecuted because they believe homosexual behavior is immoral, and a Canadian church threatened with revocation of its tax exemption because it teaches biblical truth about homosexual behavior. Based on this foreign trend, and attempts by courts to normalize homosexual behavior here at home, I’ve even warned that it’s just a matter of time before similar limits on speech are customary in the United States.
I was wrong (my wife and kids will be glad to see me admit it).
In the Westboro Baptist case, the Supreme Court held that even speech that may fairly be characterized as “hate speech” is protected by the First Amendment. It said, “Given that Westboro’s speech was at a public place on a matter of public concern, that speech is entitled to ‘special protection’ under the First Amendment. Such speech cannot be restricted simply because it is upsetting or arouses contempt. … Indeed, the point of all speech protection … is to shield just those choices of content that in someone’s eyes are misguided, or even hurtful.”
In one fell blow, the Supreme Court dashed any hopes of the liberal establishment, and calmed any fears of folks like me, that European style censorship of speech criticizing homosexual behavior will take place in the U.S. any time soon. If Westboro Baptist can stand just outside a church and openly condemn homosexuality (and all those who share U.S. citizenship with those who engage in it), a pastor inside a church can talk about God’s willingness to forgive those caught up in this sin. And if Fred Phelps’s hate-filled view of the Bible’s teachings on homosexual behavior is protected speech on the street corner, a ministry is free to proclaim God’s forgiveness and loving admonition to go and sin no more, whether that be in the media, over the airwaves, or on the internet.
As much as I disagree with the folks at Westboro Baptist – God doesn’t hate anyone, but “wants all men to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth” – their victory at the Supreme Court was good for speech and good for religious freedom. A Christian’s proper response to misrepresentations of the Gospel is to work harder to get the true message of God’s love and forgiveness out. All of us have sinned in one way or another, but even the sexually immoral can be justified through Christ. I Cor. 6:9-11.
The Supreme Court got it right in Snyder v. Phelps. The answer to hate speech is not censorship, it’s more speech.
Of course, this setback won’t stop advocates of political correctness from continuing to attack religious speech they find objectionable. These attacks are often indirect. For instance, in 2009, President Obama signed the “Mathew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.” This law limits itself to physical attacks and doesn’t apply to speech. But there is a danger that it could be interpreted by an activist judge to prohibit speech that might cause someone to be physically ill. You can find out more about this law in a resource we’ve put together here.
More importantly, virtually everywhere that hate crimes laws have been enacted, “hate speech” regulations follow. This is not surprising, considering the fact that “hate crimes” are enacted solely to send a governmental message of disapproval of certain beliefs. It is only a small step from the philosophical basis underlying “hate crimes” laws to the enactment of a “hate speech” regulation. “Hate speech” regulations have followed the enactment of “hate crimes” laws in places like Canada, Europe, and Australia, and those “hate speech” laws have been used to try to silence Christians and others who speak out against same-sex “marriage,” homosexual behavior, and other things that conflict with deeply-held religious beliefs.
The Snyder case is an important victory for religious speech, but we cannot let our guard down because the assault on the teaching of biblical morality will continue.
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