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Church ordered to pay $10.9 million for funeral protest

  • Story Highlights
  • Church members picket the funerals of troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan
  • Church claims God is punishing the U.S. because of its tolerance for gays
  • Marine's father: "I couldn't let them get away with doing this to our military"
  • Church leaders say judgment will do nothing to stop their protests
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(CNN) -- A federal jury in Baltimore, Maryland, Wednesday awarded $10.9 million to a father of a Marine whose funeral was picketed by members of a fundamentalist church carrying signs blaming soldiers' deaths on America's tolerance of homosexuals.

A member of Westboro Baptist Church protests outside a veteran's hospital in Maywood, Illinois, in April 2006.

The family of Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder -- who was killed in a vehicle accident in Iraq's Anbar province in 2006 -- sued the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, and its leaders for defamation, invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Church members showed up at Snyder's funeral chanting derogatory slogans and holding picket signs with messages including "God Hates Fags."

They've picketed the funerals of dozens of troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, claiming that God is punishing the United States because of its tolerance for homosexuality.

Al Snyder, father of the slain Marine, said he considered filing the lawsuit for a long time before going forward and that he hoped the judgment would make it harder for the church to continue such protests.

"It's hard enough burying a 20-year-old son, much less having to deal with something like this," he said, recalling that some of the other signs at the funeral included "Thank God for dead soldiers" and "Thank God for IEDs." Video Watch the fallen Marine's father describe his reaction »

"As far as their picketing goes, they want to do it in front of a courthouse, they want to do it in a public park, I could care less. But I couldn't let them get away with doing this to our military," Al Snyder said.

"Every day in court I would just think of Matt and have him on my mind and know that he was watching out for me."

Snyder's attorney told jurors to pick an amount "that says don't do this in Maryland again. Do not bring your circus of hate to Maryland again," according to The Associated Press.

The award includes $2.9 million in compensatory damages and $8 million in punitive damages, a clerk in the judge's chambers said.

Lawyers for the church members argued Matthew Snyder's funeral was public and the First Amendment protects all points of view, even offensive ones, the AP reported.

Church founder Fred Phelps said the church would appeal the decision, adding it would "take about five minutes to reverse that thing." Video Watch Phelps laugh at the people trying to silence him »

"This will elevate me to something important," Phelps told reporters. "This was an act of futility."

Later, Phelps said the case was about "putting a preacher on trial for what he preaches."

"All it was, was a protestation by the government of the United States against the word of God. They don't want me preaching that God is punishing the country by killing their servicemen." Video Watch Phelps say freedom of speech is under fire »

The church had made a new sign to carry after the jury's decision, said his daughter, Margie Phelps.

"Our message is 'Thank God for 10.9 [million dollars],' " she said.

"By that mechanism [the award], the entire world will look over and see that America is doomed and that in doomed America there is no such thing as religious liberty."

The judgment would not change the message the group was carrying, said another of Phelps' daughters, church attorney Shirley Phelps-Roper.

"It's going nowhere," she said of the jury's decision. "This is a nothing. God is not going to stop killing your soldiers. He's not going to stop pouring his wrath out on this nation. America is doomed."

Church members were persecuted for their teachings and the court "mocked and scoffed at our religious beliefs," she said.

Phelps-Roper added that protests were planned later this week in Boston and Acton, Massachusetts, and in Norton, Kansas.

The group plans to protest a Veterans Day rally in Washington, she said.

Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church -- which has no connections with any mainstream Baptist organizations -- are longtime anti-gay protesters.

Before launching their protests at the funerals of American troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, they routinely picketed the funerals of gay people and those who died of AIDS.


Phelps and his followers also picketed the February 2006 funeral of Coretta Scott King, widow of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., because of her support for gay rights.

Several states have implemented laws about funeral protests and Congress has passed a law barring protests at federal cemeteries. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

Copyright 2007 CNN. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Associated Press contributed to this report.

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