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Fred Phelps Sr. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File)

Editorial: Fighting words

Pastor Fred Phelps has gone to his reward, and we can only hope that his reward is to get dope-slapped, repeatedly, by an Almighty who is righteously wrathful at being portrayed as a hateful bigot.

Like the Nazis marching through Skokie before him, Phelps sorely tested the nation’s stomach for its First Amendment freedoms. While friends and families mourned their fallen soldiers, Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church protested the funerals, thanking God for the losses and proclaiming the deaths as God’s own retribution for America’s sins. You’ve seen the posters; the slogans don’t bear repeating here.

The path from one Marine’s funeral took Phelps from Westminster to Washington, via federal courts in Baltimore and Richmond, Va. Along the way, the church’s greatest loss — an $11 million verdict the jury in Baltimore had awarded the Marine’s father — became its greatest victory, when the U.S. Supreme Court set aside the verdict and ruled, 8-1, that the pickets were protected speech.

The high court also said local jurisdictions could enact reasonable restrictions on the time, place and manner of funeral protests, and many towns have. But a funny thing happened: People stopped relying on the law to protect them from Westboro’s venom. As the Associated Press reported in Phelps’ obituary, “In Phelps’ later years, the protests themselves were largely ignored or led to counter-demonstrations that easily shouted down Westboro’s message. A motorcycle group known as the Patriot Guard arose to shield mourners at military funerals from Westboro’s notorious signs. At the University of Missouri in 2014, hundreds of students gathered to surround the handful of church members who traveled to the campus after football player Michael Sam came out as gay.”

In other words, speech was met with speech. The system worked, the way it was intended to work all along. In the end, Phelps has arguably done more to advance liberal causes than any liberal advocate could have done alone.

Pastor Fred Phelps is dead. The First Amendment lives. And, in this case, living is the best revenge.


One comment

  1. irk@kramerslaw.com

    Well done.