CHICAGO (AFP) — Armed with signs shouting "thank God for dead soldiers," a radical anti-gay US church plans to resume its controversial funeral protests Friday despite being ordered to pay 11 million dollars to the family of a fallen soldier offended by their hateful songs and slogans.
Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church hailed Wednesday's jury verdict as yet another opportunity to spread its message that God is punishing the United States for its tolerance of homosexuality.
"We will continue to warn you of your impending doom as long as our God gives us breath," church leaders said in a press release lined with biblical references and pictures of the signs its members flaunt at funerals.
"Not only did you fail to stop our preaching, but our message has gone to the entire world."
The fringe group of fire and brimstone Baptists from Topeka, Kansas has been courting controversy for more than 17 years.
The church first gained national notoriety when they picketed the funeral of Matthew Shepard, a Wyoming student who was murdered in 1998 for being gay.
They have since picketed the funerals of Frank Sinatra and Bill Clinton's mother, celebrated the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, as an act of God's wrath, and have even targeted Santa Claus and the Ku Klux Klan.
Funded in part by lawsuits against those who try to block the protests and violate a constitutional right to free speech, the church members travel the country on a near-daily basis and have held an estimated 30,000 pickets.
Their funeral protests are laced with anti-gay slurs.
At one protest attended by AFP five women sang and danced as they held up signs saying "God hates fags," "fag vets" and "America is doomed." The group also has a wide repertoire of songs like "This Land is Fag Land" and "God Hates America."
The group's presence at the funerals of dozens of soldiers across the country has sparked a grassroots movement of bikers determined to drown out the jeers and taunts.
While Westboro's congregation remains stable at around 70 to 100 people -- most of whom are the extended family of founder Fred Phelps -- the ranks of the Patriot Guard Riders has swelled to more than 117,000 in the past two years.
If the Westboro protestors show up as planned at the funerals of Sergeant Scott Turner in Norton, Kansas and Staff Sergeant Larry Rougle in West Jordan, Utah on Friday, their signs will be masked by an honor guard of flag-waving bikers.
But the father of a soldier awarded 10.9 million dollars on Wednesday after his son Matthew's funeral was picketed last year hopes the verdict he has won will block the protest completely.
"I basically want to shut them down," said Albert Snyder. "I don't expect to collect 10 million dollars, but I do intend to collect everything they have."
Westboro insists it will win the case on appeal, but Snyder's lawyer said they have a good chance of proving that the constitutional right to free speech has limits.
"The reality is that the First Amendment has survived 200 years without anyone protesting funerals, and I think it's safe to say that if this group is shut down and cannot protest funerals, the First Amendment will survive another 200 years," said Sean Summers, Snyder's attorney.
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