AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine Attorney General Janet Mills on Wednesday defended her decision not to sign on to a brief to the Supreme Court in support of a father who sued anti-gay protesters over their demonstration at the 2006 funeral of his son, a Marine killed in Iraq.
Only Maine and Virginia declined to sign the brief by the Kansas attorney general.
Albert Snyder sued over protests by the Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church at his son’s funeral in Maryland. The church pickets funerals because they believe war deaths are punishment for U.S. tolerance of homosexuality.
The Supreme Court has agreed to consider whether the protesters’ message is protected by the First Amendment.
In the brief filed Tuesday, the states argued they have a compelling interest in protecting the sanctity of funerals.
But Mills said in a Wednesday statement that the case is a civil action between private parties and that the state generally does not take sides in such matters.
Mills said while she understands some Mainers will disagree with her office’s decision not to join the amicus brief, the facts as found by the court “did not rise to the level of conduct that would be prohibited under our law.”
Rather than acting in a way that would be potentially criminally actionable, the protesters stayed a distance away from the funeral service, did not attempt to disrupt the service or attendees and cooperated with police, Mills said.
“The utterances at issue in the Snyders’ claim for damages were offensive and outrageous,” Mills said in the statement. “But the First Amendment does not allow us to distinguish between polite speech and hateful or outrageous speech.
“This is not a political question, a test of patriotism or a popularity contest about how many people take offense at a particular statement,” she said. “Once we start carving out exceptions to the First Amendment for speech that is unpopular or offensive, then we start down a slippery slope that endangers the right of all of us to hold and express views that may be thought unpopular by others.”
Mills noted that Maine recently amended its laws “to forbid activities that disturb the peace of funeral attendees.” The changes were made in response to threats by what Mills called “extremists” to disrupt a Maine soldier’s funeral in 2007.
Kate Simmons, spokeswoman for Mills, said the attorney general received more than 100 e-mails — almost entirely from people outside of Maine — urging her to sign onto the amicus brief. Some of those e-mails questioned the patriotism of not signing onto the letter, Simmons said.
“While some have questioned the patriotism of our office because we declined to join the amicus brief, just the opposite is true,” Mills said. “Our families too have fought in battle. They fought for the constitutional rights of all our citizens, including Mr. Snyder.”