This article was written by CBSNews.com intern Brian Goodman.
On Friday, July 7, Army 1st Lieutenant Forrest P. Ewens was buried at a respectful ceremony in Arlington National Cemetery, which many consider to be the most hallowed ground in the United States.
But the peace was disrupted by protests from members of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas. In a cordoned-off area by the entrance to the cemetery, they carried signs with anti-gay and anti-American slogans and proclaimed that Ewens' death in Afghanistan on June 16 was another sign of God's impeding doom on the nation.
Westboro has taken what it calls "love crusades" to military funerals across the country. The church was not protesting at the funeral because Ewens was gay, but because he died, in their view, serving a country that has incurred the wrath of God by accepting and tolerating homosexuality.
Now the father of a slain serviceman whose funeral was disrupted is suing the church in an attempt to fight back against what he views as the abuse of military families with a message of hate.
'Sins Of The Flesh'
Westboro Baptist Church was founded by Fred Phelps in Topeka, Kan., in 1955. The church — unaffiliated with any mainstream Baptist organization — has always "preached against all forms of sin," as its Web site says. Church members began demonstrating against homosexuality 15 years ago. According to Phelps's daughter Shirley Phelps-Roper, Westboro believes that America is damned to eternal punishment because the country is accepting of homosexuality and other "sins of the flesh."
"When you see a people who have risen up with one voice to say 'it's OK to be gay,' you are looking at a doomed people," she said. "They have crossed the line."
Westboro gained notoriety when members held an anti-gay rally outside the funeral of Matthew Shepard, who was brutally murdered in 1998 in Wyoming due to his sexual preference. Westboro later attempted to get a plaque commemorating Shepard's "entry into hell" erected in a Wyoming park.
The church of about 100 members is made up primarily of Phelps's supposed family. Westboro directs most of its preaching against homosexuality and America's acceptance of gays, whom Phelps-Roper calls "the bottom rung on the depravity chain."
Church members picket at high profile locations, and have appeared at memorials for the victims of Sept. 11 and the 12 West Virginia Sago coal miners who died last January.
Westboro views the deaths of American servicemen in the Middle East to be one of the many ways God is enacting his vengeance and judgment on the nation. The church has therefore taken to protesting at military funerals to get that message out.
"Our job," Phelps-Roper stated, "is to put this cup of his wrath and fury to the lips of this nation and make them drink it."
For the first time since members of Westboro began protesting at military funerals, someone is using the courts to stop them. A distraught father has filed suit in Maryland against what he views as a gross violation of privacy and intentional emotional abuse.
But the funeral was interrupted by members of the church. "The protesters — Westboro Baptist Church — showed up with their signs, their hatred," Snyder said.
According to Snyder's attorney Sean Summers, the demonstrators bore their infamous "God Hates Fags" signs, as well as a lesser used "Semper Fi Fags" sign, particularly offensive to the dead Marine's family.
Though Phelps-Roper maintains that the protesters "were hundreds — hundreds — of yards from where the funeral was," Snyder was forced to travel past them to enter.
"To be honest with you, I tried not to focus on (the protest), and more on my son," he said.
But according to the lawsuit, the church's presence was emotionally damaging to the already grieving father. Postings by Phelps-Roper on the church's Web site following the protest that claimed Snyder "taught Matthew to defy his Creator, to divorce, and to commit adultery," and "raised him for the devil," further added to the father's pain.
The lawsuit says Westboro knowingly violated Snyder's privacy, defamed him and was an intentional infliction of emotional distress against the bereaved father.
In addition to general damages, the lawsuit is seeking punitive damages against the church to act as a deterrent against future protests,
Phelps-Roper feels this is a misuse of the judicial system. "Their stated purpose is to tie this little group — the servants of the living God — up in litigation," she said, "not caring what the merits are … or if they could possibly prevail."
Snyder says that he wants to spare other grieving families from Westboro's activities. "My hope is that they'll stop doing what they're doing."
'God Loves Everyone'
At Arlington, Pastor David Foote of Franklin, Penn., saw the protest and attempted to engage the demonstrators. He told them that "God loves everyone," prompting church members to descend upon him in a hail of insults.
"A lying, false prophet — that's what this is," Phelps-Roper told CBSNews.com, and dismissed him as a "dumb-ass" and a liar.
Foote was in Arlington to pay his respects to Army Spc. Jonathan Kephart, killed near Baghdad on April 9, 2004. Seeing the contempt demonstrated by the church for both the dead and the living was troubling to the Baptist preacher.
"Christians don't talk the way they talked to me," he said. "We show respect to each other."
By Brian M. Goodman