The Constitution guarantees individuals many rights, such as the right to free speech and religious freedom. However, issues arise when rights of different individuals begin to conflict. It is hotly debated whether or not the government has the right or even obligation to limit the rights of individuals for the greater good, and this comes up in many contemporary issues, especially regarding censorship. In recent years, the actions of the Westboro Baptist Church, which include protesting homosexuality at the funerals of soldiers, have often made headlines, leading many to question whether or not their actions should be protected by the Constitution.
In 2011, the Supreme Court ruled in their favor, citing the right to free speech, but the debate is far from settled, especially in cases when the protests border on harassment (Chappell 1).
The actions of the Westboro Baptist Church, although offensive, should be protected under the United States Constitution due to their constitutional rights and the conditions of the protests. Through their protests, the Westboro Baptist Church is expressing several of their constitutional rights: their freedom of speech, their right to petition the government, and their right to freely exercise their religion.
The Westboro Baptist Church, according to their religious doctrine, believe that increasing acceptance of homosexuality is the cause of many of the tragic events in the recent past, such as 9/11. This is both an expression of their personal thoughts and of their religion, which are both rights protected under the Constitution.
Furthermore, the Westboro Baptist Church is petitioning the government through protest to change policies they believe to be invalid, which is also protected under the Constitution. While the protests of the Church are often in bad taste, their protests are taking advantage of their constitutional rights and thus should be protected under the Constitution.
The government’s power in regards to limiting rights of individuals is largely influenced by two schools of thought: natural rights philosophy and classical republicanism. In natural rights philosophy, the rights of the individual are more important while in classical republicanism the public good prevails. In general, law leans towards classical republicanism, as the govermment has the right to restrict an individual’s rights if the individual has been convicted of committing a crime. In this case, proponents for the restriction of the rights of the Westboro Baptist Church often make the argument that the protests are not lawful. However, the protests of the Church are done on public land, which, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, are legally unrestricted in terms of protest, as opposed to private property (ACLU). Furthermore, the protests are not targeted at any single individual, and thus cannot be classified as defamation, and are in compliance with police instructions (Gregory). Thus, no laws are broken, and the rights of the members cannot be legally limited.
The actions of the Westboro Baptist Church are fully within the constitutional rights of the members, and do not violate any laws. While the protests can be considered offensive to many and there are arguably better ways for the Westboro Baptist Church to protest the increasing tolerance of homosexuality in the United States, it would be unlawful to restrict their rights, as their actions are not threatening the public good as it is defined by law.