The US Supreme Court will today (7 October) decide the limits of free speech when they debate whether an anti-gay religious group that pickets military funerals is within its rights to do so.
World News Australia reports that the group, whose pickets read Thank God for Dead Soldiers and Fags Doom Nations, and which has for years disrupted the funerals of US soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, claim that the wars are divine punishment because the United States tolerates gays.
The Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church is led by patriarch Fred Phelps, who has 13 children and 54 grandchildren, many of whom are church members and many of whom have gathered outside the Supreme Court while the case begins.
"It's an awesome day when we are going to uphold our First Amendment rights," said church member Jacob Phelps.
As well as military funerals, members of the church have picketed political rallies, concerts, sporting events and a Holocaust Museum in Washington.
The case presently before the Supreme Court involves the 2006 funeral of Matthew Snyder, a 20-year-old US marine killed in Iraq.
Westboro protesters picketed his funeral and Snyder's family subsequently sued the church. A federal jury found that the picketing caused mental distress to Snyder's father, Albert, and awarded him close to $US11 million ($11.31 million) in damages.
The amount was later reduced to $US5 million after an appeals court found even though Westboro's actions were considered to be "distasteful and repugnant", they were permitted under the First Amendment constitutional protections of the right to freedom of religion and expression.
Albert Synder's lawyer is now arguing that the church's right to free speech "should have ended where it conflicted with Mr Snyder's freedom to participate in his son's funeral, which was intended to be a solemn religious gathering."
Non-church members gathered outside the court said while they agree with the right to freedom of expression, a line should be drawn when it involves interfering with funerals.
The Supreme Court is expected to rule on the case in early 2011, with a ruling against the church expected to see a significant clampdown on the limits of freedom of speech.
In a landmark case earlier this year, the judges of the Supreme Court upheld the rights of free speech, even in cases of videos or photos depicting extreme cruelty to animals.