Maybe we should take up a collection to help this dad out with his legal fees.
YORK, Pa. - Some nights Albert Snyder wakes up at 3 a.m. Other nights he doesn't sleep at all, tormented by thoughts of the hateful signs carried by a fundamentalist church outside his Marine son's funeral.
"Thank God for Dead Soldiers."
"You're Going to Hell."
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"Semper Fi Fags."
Hundreds of grieving families have been targeted by the Westboro Baptist Church, which believes military deaths are the work of a wrathful God who punishes the United States for tolerating homosexuality.
Most mourners try to ignore the taunts. But Snyder couldn't let it go. He became the first to sue the church to halt the demonstrations, and he's pursued the group farther than anyone else.
Wave of support
Now, more than four years after his son died in a Humvee accident in Iraq, Snyder's legal battle is headed to the Supreme Court. And his tireless efforts have drawn support from across the country, including a wave of donations after he was ordered to pay the church's court costs — a $16,500 judgment that the congregation plans to use for more protests.
Lance Cpl. Matthew A. Snyder, 20, was not gay. But for the Westboro church, any dead soldier is fair game. Pastor Fred Phelps oversees a congregation of 70 to 80 members — mostly his children and grandchildren. They consider themselves prophets, and they insist the nation is doomed.
As Snyder sees it, Westboro isn't engaging in constitutionally protected speech when it pickets funerals. He argues that Phelps and his followers are disrupting private assemblies and harassing people at their most vulnerable — behavior that's an incitement to violence.
"This is more than free speech. This is like yelling, 'Fire!' in a crowded theater. Somebody's going to get hurt," Snyder said, his voice rising and eyes welling with tears.
Snyder's lawsuit accuses the Topeka, Kan., church of invading his privacy and intentionally inflicting emotional distress. He has the backing of his ex-wife and his two daughters, but Snyder insisted on being the only plaintiff.
Except for the 40 hours per week he works selling industrial equipment, the case takes up nearly all his time. He says it's more stressful than a second full-time job.
Snyder, who lives in York, about 85 miles west of Philadelphia, is soft-spoken and polite. But anger and sadness flare up quickly, with little warning. The litigation has forced him to relive the anguish of his son's death, and his grief is still raw.
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Behind their hate, a constitutional debate
"It's still very emotional," Snyder said in an interview at his attorney's office. "It's like I constantly relive this every day, and I just wonder sometimes, when this is all over, what I'm going to do with that void. Will the grieving process begin?"
The fight has taken its toll on Snyder's health. The broad-chested 54-year-old has struggled with clinical depression and diabetes.
Snyder fought back against the church in part because he felt Westboro paid special attention to his son. Several weeks after the funeral, the pastor's daughter, Shirley Phelps-Roper, wrote in an online diatribe that Snyder and his ex-wife taught their son "to defy his creator."