Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder was killed while serving in Iraq in 2006. His grieving father, Albert Snyder, did what too many military families have had to do over the past several years -- bury his child. But this sad story takes a cruel and despicable turn.
You see, a group identified as the Westboro Baptist Church out of Topeka, Kan., had taken to demonstrating at military funerals in their attempt to attract attention to their anti-homosexual views. The group claims that the loss of life in overseas military operations is directly attributable to America's refusal to universally condemn homosexuality. Taking it a disturbing step further, this group even carries signs that read "Thank God for Dead Soldiers" and, as reported by The Christian Science Monitor, the group has an online press release that concludes with the phrase, "Thank God for IEDs" (Improvised Explosive Devices).
In the face of this shameful treatment of his son's death, Mr. Snyder retaliated not with violence, but with legal action. He filed suit against the Westboro demonstrators and won a multi-million dollar judgment against them. Sadly, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals just recently reversed the lower court's finding by asserting that the First Amendment rights of the demonstrators would be violated with a finding in favor of Mr. Snyder. This reversal also required Mr. Snyder to pay Westboro's court fees in excess of $16,000 -- an amount that he has stated he will not pay unless the Supreme Court of the United States orders him to do so.
With the Supreme Court recently agreeing to hear his appeal next term, Mr. Snyder will have his day in front of the highest court in the land.
Our First Amendment rights are critically important to ensuring that each of us is able to present our views in the public forum without government restriction or interference. Each day, thousands of Americans do just that, on matters ranging from new contracts for union workers to folks letting the government know of their position on national health-care legislation.
But I do not believe that these rights are unlimited, without regard to our basic humanity. I do not believe that they allow free Americans to cross the bounds of decency while intruding on the privacy of fellow citizens. In short, I don't believe that our Constitution affords disturbed protesters the right to interfere with a peaceful memorial service for a fallen Marine. I can only hope and pray that the Supreme Court will agree, and rule in favor of Mr. Snyder.
But regardless of the High Court's ruling, these demonstrations are not likely to stop whether they receive a favorable or unfavorable ruling.
After learning of this story, I asked myself what my readers could do to help. It appears that Bill O'Reilly, of Fox News, has already volunteered to pay the outstanding legal fees on behalf of Mr. Snyder, should he be ordered to do so. And for that I applaud Mr. O'Reilly. But there is more.
A group called Patriot Guard Riders (www.patriotguard.org) has joined together for a worthy cause. They are motorcycle riders from across America whose main mission is, if invited by the grieving families, to attend the funerals of our service men and women and provide an escort for the fallen military member and their family, so as to ensure that no protests or demonstrations can disrupt the services. These are men and women who simply recognized that groups such as Westboro were hurting families at a time when they were most vulnerable and grieving. I ask each of you to visit the Patriot Guard's web site and join their ranks. You need not own a motorcycle or even have ridden one in the past. Rather, they proudly state that their only prerequisite to membership is "respect."
My hope is that someday we will not require Supreme Court rulings and Patriot Guard Riders to protect our fallen heroes when they return home. But right now we do, and so I appeal to the Court to recognize and respect the constitutional rights of grieving families, and I appeal to each of you to become a member of the Patriot Guard.
Mike Reagan, the elder son of the late President Ronald Reagan, is spokesperson for The Reagan PAC and chairman and president of The Reagan Legacy Foundation. E-mail comments to Reagan@caglecartoons.com.