SCOTUS' Westboro Baptist ruling angers many in SC - wistv.com - Columbia, South Carolina

SCOTUS' Westboro Baptist ruling angers many in SC

A member of the Westboro Baptist Church protests at the State House in March 2010 A member of the Westboro Baptist Church protests at the State House in March 2010

By Jack Kuenzie - bio | email

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - They're headquartered in Kansas, but members of a controversial church have made headlines here in the Midlands. A new ruling from the Supreme Court of the United States on the church's activities has many South Carolinians shaking their heads.

This is a pro-military state, so the Supreme Court's decision on a complaint about Westboro Baptist Church has brought considerable reaction here. Much of what the church has been doing over the last few years has caused a lot of pain for military families.

Their protests have provoked, angered and disgusted people all over the nation. Topeka, Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church preaches hate, and has done so here in the Palmetto State.

Along with appearing at the State House last March, Westboro members have also directed their wrath toward families of fallen South Carolina military personnel, claiming they and the nation are cursed for tolerating homosexuality.

It's a message that outrages many here, including Jeff and Sally Gurrie of Greenville. "I think everybody has a right to free speech," said Jeff. "But when they start doing that and causing pain within families and such, that really steps over the line."

"If it's something that I don't want my kids to hear, I don't think it should be allowed to be out there," said Sally. "And saying that God hates soldiers and things like that, God doesn't hate anything.

But in an 8-1 ruling this week, the Supreme Court of the United States rejected the argument of a father in Maryland who said the group's protest at his son's funeral "intentionally incited emotional distress," and was therefore a violation of his rights.

The high court said even hurtful speech is constitutionally protected. "The protesters were where they were required to be under local law," said attorney and USC journalism professor Jay Bender. "And they were engaged in protests of what they believed to be a significant public issue. As offensive as most of us would find that speech, it's protected and that's what we have to protect in our society."

The federal government and 46 states including South Carolina have passed laws setting limits on protests near funerals. Ours requires protesters to stay 1,000 feet away.

Several organizations, including one called the Patriot Guard Riders, have been formed to shield grieving families from groups like Westboro Baptist. The captain of the South Carolina chapter sent us a statement reading in part, "the true travesty in this is that we would ever need to consider the right of someone to protest at the funeral of an American military member that has given their oath and life to defend these rights."

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