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Free speech: Westboro church Supreme Court case tests First Amendment

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On Oct. 6, the US Supreme Court takes up a case examining whether members of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., went too far when they staged a protest at a fallen marine's funeral in Maryland. The demonstrators hoisted signs proclaiming: "You Are Going to Hell" and "Thank God for Dead Soldiers."

Fred Phelps, pastor of the Westboro church, has made a career out of using blunt and offensive statements to try to shock Americans into joining his crusade against gay rights. His followers show up at military funerals and announce that God is killing American soldiers for the sins of the country. Funeralgoers are urged to repent... or else.

In Maryland, it was too much for the grieving father, Albert Snyder, to endure. He sued. The case pits Mr. Snyder's First Amendment right to peacefully assemble in a church to mourn his son's passing against the Westboro protesters' right to chant harsh slogans and display shocking signs in their campaign for moral salvation of the nation.

"I suspect neither Phelps nor Snyder will change their point of view no matter what happens in the case," says Christina Wells, a law professor and First Amendment scholar at the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Law.

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