By Tricia Bishop
April 4, 2010
YORK, Pa. — - Albert Snyder is a soft, bear of a man - more teddy than grizzly - with thinning hair, a trim goatee and tired eyes. He has a folksy, polite manner and speaks with the gentle tone and tempo of a storyteller.
But if you mess with his family, he turns fierce. You can see the change whenever the Westboro Baptists of Topeka, Kan., are mentioned. They messed with his son in what he considers an unimaginable way.
"You don't go after one of my kids," Snyder said from his lawyer's office in York, Pa.
Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew A. Snyder, 20, was killed in a Humvee accident in Iraq on March 3, 2006. A week later, church members stood outside his funeral at St. John's Roman Catholic Church in Westminster waving signs that said "Thank God for dead soldiers" and "God hates fags" while mourners grieved inside. Later, they posted a diatribe on their Web site claiming that Matthew's divorced parents raised him "to commit adultery" and to support "satanic Catholicism."
The Westboro church members had never met Matthew, who wasn't gay, nor his family. Yet seven of them - adults and children - traveled 1,100 miles across a half-dozen states to celebrate the young Marine's death as part of their anti-gay gospel aimed at the military. They contended that the protest was directed not at Snyder but at the U.S. government and its tolerance of homosexuality and gays in the military.
Snyder sued Westboro Baptist Church and its leaders in Baltimore federal court a few months after Matthew died, contending that they invaded his privacy and intentionally inflicted emotional distress. He testified that the defendants placed a "bug" in his head so that he could no longer think of his son without thinking of them and their signs.
The trial, too, took its toll, wearing on him physically and emotionally as he relived his son's death each day.
Snyder won a multimillion-dollar jury verdict, with the judge calling Westboro's actions "outrageous" and "highly offensive," but an appeals court reversed it. The Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case during its fall term, vaulting Snyder's personal fight onto a national stage.
He appeared on ABC's "Good Morning America" last week, and taped an episode with MSNBC's Chris Matthews the week before. On Tuesday, shortly after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit ruled that Snyder would have to pay some costs of Westboro's appeals, Bill O'Reilly of Fox News pledged to pay the $16,000 bill.
Snyder's lawyers have become part-time publicity agents and celebrities. And military families across the country consider Snyder - a man who never wanted his son to be a soldier - a champion for basic human decency.