Politico Magazine has a lengthy featured about Al Snyder–the father of Matthew Snyder, whose funeral was protested by Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptists.
The first indication that Al’s suffering would be compounded came at the viewing the following night, when a family friend made a passing reference to the prospect of “protesters” at Matt’s funeral. Al’s first thought was that anybody doing such a thing must be an anti-war activist. But then someone mentioned Westboro Baptist Church, which Al immediately remembered from news of the 1998 funeral service for Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old college student who had been brutally murdered near Laramie, Wyo. Westboro became a national spectacle at Shepard’s funeral, parading with signs saying “Matt in Hell” and “AIDS cures fags.” By the time Al had heard the rumors that his own son’s memory might be treated to such an indignity, members of the Westboro church had already posted notice of their intention to their website. In their announcement on www.godhatesfags.com, the group said it was hoping to use Matt’s military funeral to call attention to America’s permissive views on homosexuality. Skilled in the art of protest, Westboro immediately requested the protection of law enforcement.
Though Matthew Snyder wasn’t gay, his father was.
It didn’t seem to matter to them that Matt wasn’t gay—and the church knew nothing of Al’s sexuality. To them, the funeral represented a place to make a provocative point.
He describes the scene of the funeral:
Al remembers the scene: Reporters swarmed, a motorcycle group arrived to form a kind of peace-keeping shield between the mourners and the activists, and a SWAT team sat at the ready in a nearby Winnebago. Mostly, he recalls that the demonstrators from Kansas had succeeded in turning a solemn service for a fallen Marine into a circus. “All we were trying to do was bury Matt,” Al now offers.
And this report of how he came across the Westboro Baptist’s website missive, that was not resolved in the case:
In the days and weeks after Matt’s funeral, Al drew strength from the outpouring of support he received from strangers scattered across the country. The Internet was initially a place of comfort where he could respond to those who said they were praying for Matt and his family. He got in the habit of googling his son’s name to read seemingly heartfelt greetings offered for his loss. But one day, a random Internet search yielded a screed that had been posted by the Westboro activists. It was titled “The Burden of Matthew Snyder:”
After reading the web site, Al reached out to attorneys, though they insisted that they did not want to make this a “gay issue.”
Al reached out to two local attorneys, Sean Summers and Craig Trebilcock, asking them about his legal options to respond to the disruption and distress the Westboro protesters had caused. The lawyers offered to volunteer their time on the case—though Al would be responsible for any damages or costs incurred by suing the Westboro church—and then they filed a formal complaint in federal court claiming invasion of privacy and the intentional infliction of emotional distress. The suit made headlines and commenced a discovery process that would last more than a year—a process that Al knew could get very personal.
Early on, Al and Walt decided to keep their own sexuality out of their case against Westboro. According to Al, it was Walt’s idea. “He said, ‘What it’s going to do is make this a gay issue and it’s not.’ He was right,” Al remembers.
“We wanted to put the focus on a human issue,” Al now says. “It didn’t have anything to do with gays. It was about doing this to our military people. I’m gay, but the other 400 families who were then in the same situation likely weren’t gay.”
It’s fascinating how Al worked to keep his sexuality out of the case, even when pressed by Westboro lawyers. Judge Bennett insisted on keeping this issue out of the litigation.
When the attorneys could not agree how to proceed with the deposition, an emergency call was placed to Bennett, who again thwarted any questioning that addressed Al’s sexuality. On the call with the judge, Katz persisted, arguing that if Al was gay, the psychological review that Westboro’s expert doctor had performed would need to be changed. In a case seeking damages for emotional distress, Katz argued, Snyder’s sexuality was an issue.
“Let me just cut right to the core,” Bennett said. “There is no reason to file a motion for reconsideration, no reason to ask the question. The court has ruled: One’s sexual orientation has nothing to do with this case.” The following day, Walt was deposed, and when asked about his connection to Al, he replied, “He is a good friend.”
And this vignette from inside One First Street:
There was little doubt that Al would try to take his appellate loss to the Supreme Court. This time, Walt was at his side. When the argument was held on Oct. 6, 2010, the two men sat together in the Supreme Court, along with Al’s daughters and his two sisters. By then, Walt was walking with a cane, having been told he was suffering rheumatoid arthritis. “Several of the Phelpses showed up wearing shirts that said ‘Jews killed Christ.’ I was surprised they were allowed in court like that,” Al recalls. “And when the oral argument ended, the Westboro contingent gathered outside the court and sang Ozzy Osborne’s ‘Crazy Train.’”
And, tragically, Al’s boyfriend was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, but prayed to hear the Court’s decision–it would not be in their favor.
One month after the argument, Walt was diagnosed with lung cancer. His diagnosis was terminal. “He told me God has to let him live to hear the decision, he wouldn’t be that cruel,” Al remembers. That wish came true, though the decision wasn’t the one they had hoped for.
Read the entire thing.