Faith and Free Speech Clash at Funerals

Warning: Language May be Offensive to Some

A $10 million jury verdict came against a religious group that pickets at the funerals of fallen service members as a way to denounce homosexuality. Mark Potok, from the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the Rev. Hershael York, a pastor and professor, discuss where free speech and freedom of faith butt heads.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, we hear from the man at WABC in New York who's probably most interested in whether the controversial talk show host, Don Imus has been forgiven by listeners.

But first, a huge jury verdict this week against the self-styled religious group. It's the group that pickets at the funerals of fallen service members as a way to denounce homosexuality. In our Faith Matters conversation, we want to ask - in a free society, what are the limits on what we can say publicly as a matter of faith?

On Wednesday, a jury ordered the Westboro church - a small fundamentalist group out of Kansas, led by a man named Fred Phelps - to pay nearly $11 million to the father of a Marine killed in Iraq. The jury said the church members invaded the privacy of a grieving family when they protest at the soldier's funeral in Westminster, Maryland.

Fred Phelps has a history of such protests, saying he and his followers believe the soldiers' deaths are God's punishment for America's tolerance of homosexuality. They often hold placards with slogans saying things like thank God for dead soldiers.

I think it's fair to say that most people find them offensive. But we want to ask about religious zeal, hate and free speech. When does evangelism cross the line?

Joining me to talk about this is Mark Potok from the Southern Poverty Law Center. It's a group that monitors extremist groups. He's on the phone with us from his office in Montgomery, Alabama. We're also joined by the Reverend Dr. Hershael York, the pastor at Buck Run Baptist church in Frankfurt, Kentucky. He's also a professor at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He joins us from their campus on Louisville.

Gentlemen, thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Mr. MARK POTOK (Director, Southern Poverty Law Center): And thanks for having us.

Reverend Dr. HERSHAEL YORK (Pastor, Buck Run Baptist Church; Professor, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary): It's nice to be with you.

MARTIN: Mark Potok, if I could begin with you, your organization classifies the Westboro church as a hate group. What makes them a hate group, in your view?

Mr. POTOK: Well, you know, they are dedicated solely to defaming, really, as many people as they can. You know, listeners have heard about the kind of, you know, AIDS curious fax, signs that these people carry. But I mean, it goes way beyond this. You know, the group has done things like - they said, it's one of their specialties standing, you know, thousands and thousands of faxes all over the place in which they do things like call, you know, Paul Wellstone, the senator from Minnesota, bug-eyed, fag, baby-killer. You know, particular merchant in town there - and to peek where they are - is a bloody Jew, a merchant of anal copulating. You know, it goes on and on and on. Pickets have -pickets from church have yelled at little girls trying to attend a performance of "The Nutcracker" and asked them if their daddies had sodomized them last night. You know, and these - those were not words they used.

MARTIN: Okay.

Mr. POTOK: So it's fairly easy for us. I mean, they're all about defaming gay people and many other people as well.

MARTIN: The Southern Poverty Law Center was not a party to this case. But you have sued other extremist groups for similar tactics. What are the grounds for a case like this?

Mr. POTOK: Well, this particular case is essentially intentional infliction of emotional distress. That was the claim and that is what the jury agreed to. You know, it's a close case. I think that it will be a very closed case on appeal, basically, because this really is a very largely First Amendment protected speech. You know, there's no question that the First Amendment protects speech that is shocking, that is hurtful, that bothers people a great deal. The exception or what may prove to be the exception is the fact that it occurred, of course, very near a funeral. The courts have carved out certain exceptions, like people's homes. You can only demonstrate loudly within a certain - or a certain distance away from people's homes. That's really the question, will the court carve out an exception for a funeral…

MARTIN: For a funeral.

Mr. POTOK: …for particular sensitive time.

MARTIN: Reverend York, a public witness is a part of Christianity for some. What is your view of this?

Rev. Dr. YORK: Well, Christianity has always thrived in the marketplace of ideas. And we believe in the power of persuasion. That power takes place one heart at a time. Obviously, the problem with Fred Phelps and Westboro - and I use this word, advisedly - church, is that they're not about persuasion. They're about intimidation and hatred, and all of us who are evangelical Christians cringe, obviously, when we see them because we realize that in the minds of some people, that's the way they picture Christianity. And yet, they are so far removed from the spirit and the heart of the Bible and of Jesus, in particular, that it's disturbing to us, probably more, than to anyone.

MARTIN: What you also - I don't want to say that you, as a Southern Baptist, agree with their view of homosexuality. I don't think that is accurate. But you also, religiously, theologically condemn it?

Rev. Dr. YORK: We believe that homosexuality is a sin. That's true. But again, we also believe that homosexuals have the same dignity and human rights that everyone has and is entitled to. I believe in appealing to a person that is in a homosexual lifestyle, on the basis of the love of God and what the scripture says. What I don't believe - is in demeaning him and treating him as though he is any less created in the imagine of God that and I or anyone else is.

MARTIN: But, Mark Potok, let's - let's all stipulate that most people find this offensive. And I have to say that I have occasioned to go by Walter Reed Army Hospital, which is where many soldiers are being treated for - many times - for grievous injuries and the Westboro group has picketed there. And the idea of these young families, these young wives having to confront these people go past them on their way to, you know, take care of these service members, is deeply shocking.

On the other hand, some people find the Jehovah's Witnesses offensive because they go knocking door to door. Some people find Faith Nights offensive because - Faith Nights at the baseball park offensive because they feel that that's evangelism. They don't want to hear it. The fact is this group was picketing a thousand feet from the church where the funeral took place. If we're to outlaw and sanction that which people find offensive, doesn't that open the door to restriction on a lot of speech?

Mr. POTOK: Sure. I don't think there's much question about that. I mean, it's a difficult and closed case, as I try to say earlier. And a thousand feet is - it's a fairly long way. It's not only that. Phelps and his crew went through went through the permitting process to hold there a little demonstration outside this funeral. And I think that, too, will count in their favor on appeal. So you know, it's really - it's unclear what's going to happen. I just one - I have one other thing, which, you know, I very much agree with the Reverend York that, you know, this is quite different from disagreeing with homosexuality or feeling that the Bible says homosexuality is wrong. I mean, these are people who do things - they really are a terrorist, in a sense.

They are - for instance, you know, the Westboro Baptist Church has routinely gone through the garbage cans of people they do not like in Topeka. So at one point, they were having a battle with local district attorney who they, you know, falsely accused of being a lesbian. And that was not the word they used. You know they go rooting around in her garbage, find a letter which she has written to her husband, discussing adulterous relationships each had had and, you know, a kind of reconciling. And you know, what Phelps and his friends do is immediately fax this out on their letterhead to hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people.

You know, similar thing was done by them when they were trying to get the mayor to back down on a funeral ordinance that Topeka was about to pass…

MARTIN: All right.

Mr. POTOK: …and in fact was successful.

MARTIN: Well, Reverend York, last word to you. What would be your message to Reverend Phelps - the clergyman - if you had an opportunity to speak with him?

Rev. Dr. YORK: Well, it would be, fir first of all, that he needs to follow the example of the Lord Jesus who came and spoke the truth, but he's spoken in love. And that he needs to follow the tenets of scripture rather than to carbon out one little slice and making it as though it were the main message of the Bible.

MARTIN: All right. Hershael York is pastor at Buck Run Baptist Church in Kentucky, a professor at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville. It's a pleasure to speak with you again, sir. Thanks for joining us.

Rev. Dr. YORK: Thank you.

MARTIN: We were also joined by Mark Potok from the Southern Poverty Law Center. He joined us from his office in Montgomery, Alabama.

Thank you also, sir.

Mr. POTOK: And thanks so much.

MARTIN: The Reverend Dr. Hershael York shares more of his spots about speaking for God on our blog at npr.org/tellmemore. We'd love for your to take a look and let us know what do you think.

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