Westboro Baptist Protesters and the Greatest Commandment

By Dan Fryk - Gateways Northern California State Coordinator

Today my keyboard sprang to life as my inbox filled with comments from many sources over the decision announced by the US Supreme Court on Monday in the case of Snyder vs Phelps. This was the case in which a small group of members (mostly family) of the Westboro Baptist church in Kansas demonstrated in opposition to the approval of homosexuality by various branches of the US government. The location they chose for this demonstration was the funeral of a US serviceman killed in Iraq. (I won't go into the signs they held as you can easily access them on the internet if you choose.) Of course this action caused a great deal of distress to the members of the family of Matthew Snyder, the young man who had given his life in service to our country. As a result of the actions of this group, his father filed suit against Westboro. His suit eventually wound up before the Supreme Court.

In the 8-1 decision announced on Monday, the court held to a very narrow interpretation that though the actions of the demonstration occurred at a time that caused the Snyder family distress, the TARGET of the demonstration was the US Government and its policies, therefore the Snyders were not entitled to any award. The majority held that freedom of expression against government policies trumped personal distress of private individuals.

Justice Samuel Alito dissented on the grounds that when freedom of speech/expression crossed over to cause traumatic stress to individuals in an otherwise private setting, such as a funeral, the right to privacy trumps freedom of expression. Personally, I appreciate Alito's sentiment but I also value the right to freedom of expression, which puts me in somewhat of a quandary. I, as we all should, value ALL of our freedoms. Why do I feel compelled to choose between the two? How do I reconcile my conflicting views? In my search for an answer, I went to the two best sources of history in existence; the words of our Founding Fathers, and the greatest historical source of all--the Bible.  Our Founders were not only very wise men but also men of great foresight, as confirmed by the words of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. In review of the just completed Constitution in 1789, Jefferson asked us:

"Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God?

John Adams agreed, "Our Constitution is fit only for a religious and moral people.  It is wholly inadequate to the governance of any other." WOW. Strong words and great advice. Those words clearly direct us to God's word if we are to resolve the conflict.  Well, as is always the case, there is an answer, this time in Galatians 5:13-15

"You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love. The entire law is summed up in a single command: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other."

Aha! The this was the part the Westboro members overlooked...and it was the part that Jefferson and Adams clearly understood--if we do not practice the Beatitudes in our everyday life, we will abuse the freedoms we have been given and hurt others in so doing. If we only look to ourselves in our practice of "freedom" we are neither serving God or our country.

So I come to understand that I can agree with both sides of the court in this case. We do have freedom of speech and assembly but if we disregard the words of God and use those freedoms in a way that is hurtful to others then they are of no lasting value. The law by itself will not save our nation or us.  It is only by allowing the Holy Spirit to guide us that we will find the balance to live a life that is free indeed, and a benefit, not a hindrance, to others.

Let us remember this case and these words as we consider other issues of freedom in the days ahead. May our words and actions bring glory to God, not to our own selfish little world.