(CBS/AP) WASHINGTON - Their opinions may be offensive to many, and even hurtful to some, but the right of the Westboro Baptist Church to express their anti-gay views outside military funerals was upheld Wednesday by the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that the free speech provisions of the First Amendment protect the Kansas-based group's public protests.
The court voted 8-1 in favor of the church. The justices upheld an appeals court ruling that dismissed a $5 million judgment for the father of a dead Marine, who sued church members after they picketed his son's funeral.
The Rev. Fred Phelps and his family members, who make up most of the Westboro Baptist Church, have picketed many military funerals to draw attention to their belief that U.S. deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq are God's punishment for the nation's tolerance of homosexuality.
Matthew Snyder died in Iraq in 2006 and his body was returned to the United States for burial. Westboro Baptist protested outside the church where his funeral was to be held, with members carrying their usual signs, including "Thank God for dead soldiers," "You're Going to Hell," and "God Hates the USA/Thank God for 9/11."
Chief Justice John Roberts, who wrote the majority opinion for the court, said the First Amendment shields the funeral protesters, noting that they obeyed police directions and were 1,000 feet from the church.
"Speech is powerful. It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and - as it did here - inflict great pain. On the facts before us, we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker," Roberts said. "As a nation we have chosen a different course - to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate."
Justice Samuel Alito, the lone dissenter, strongly disagreed.
"Our profound national commitment to free and open debate is not a license for the vicious verbal assault that occurred in this case," he said.
The church members at Snyder's funeral drew counter-demonstrators, as well as media coverage and a heavy police presence to maintain order. The result was a spectacle that led to altering the route of the funeral procession.Forty-eight states, 42 U.S. senators and veterans groups sided with Snyder, asking the court to shield funerals from the Phelps family's "psychological terrorism."
While distancing themselves from the church's message, media organizations, including The Associated Press, urged the court to side with Westboro Baptist in this case because of concerns that a victory for Snyder could erode speech rights.Click here for complete coverage of Westboro Baptist Church on Crimesider.