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Last Updated: Thursday, 1 November 2007, 02:48 GMT
Huge fine for anti-gay US church
Members of the extreme anti-gay Westboro Baptist church picket the funeral of Lance Cpl Matthew Snyder in March 2006
The church's pickets of military funerals have outraged Americans
A church whose members cheered a soldier's death as "punishment" for US tolerance of homosexuality has been told to pay $10.9m (5.2m) in damages.

The Westboro Baptist Church was taken to court by the father of Lance Cpl Matthew Snyder, a marine who died serving in Iraq in March 2006.

The church cited its constitutional right to free speech in its defence.

But Albert Snyder's lawyer urged the jury to ensure the damages were high enough to stop the church campaigning.

Members of the church - based in Topeka, Kansas - have denounced homosexuality for years, initially targeting the funerals of Aids victims.

But they later extended their pickets to the funerals of soldiers, who they say are being punished by God because of America's tolerance of homosexuality.

Do not bring your circus of hate to Maryland again
Craig Trebilcock
Attorney for Albert Snyder

Last year they caused outrage when they attended the funeral of Matthew Snyder with signs reading "Thank God for dead soldiers" and "You're going to hell".

On Wednesday, the jury ordered the church and three of its leaders to pay $2.9m in compensatory damages, and an additional $8m for invasion of privacy and for causing emotional distress.

Albert Snyder's attorney, Craig Trebilcock, had urged jurors to agree an amount "that says 'Don't do this' in Maryland again. Do not bring your circus of hate to Maryland again".

Defence attorney Jonathan Katz's argument that the $2.9m in compensatory damages already far exceeded the defendants' net worth and would be enough to "bankrupt them and financially destroy them" was ignored.

The church, which is unaffiliated with any major denomination, is headed by Fred Phelps. Most of its 70-odd members belong to his extended family.


Albert Snyder sobbed when he heard the verdict.

"I hope it's enough to deter them from doing this to other families. It was not about the money. It was about getting them to stop," he said, according to Reuters news agency.

Members of the church, however, reportedly greeted the verdict with tight-lipped smiles.

"It will take the 4th Circuit of Appeals a few minutes to reverse this silly thing," said Rev Phelps.

Daughter Shirley Phelps-Roper - co-defendant along with another daughter, Rebecca Phelps-Davis - called the verdict a blow against free speech and vowed to continue picketing military funerals.

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