The defendants reasserted their religious freedom argument in their appeal to the Fourth Circuit, arguing that [t]his case punished defendants' religious belief that they are prophets and God’s elect; their belief in God's hate; and their belief in the doctrines of reprobation, election and predestination. The jury should not have had the opportunity to put the official governmental stamp of disapproval on defendants' religious beliefs. The Fourth Circuit, however, did not address the religious freedom argument, dismissing the case instead under the First Amendment’s Free Speech Clause.
In rejecting defendants’ free exercise defense, the district court quoted Justice Antonin Scalia’s opinion in the leading Free Exercise decision, Employment Division of Oregon v. Smith: We have never held that an individual's religious beliefs excuse him from compliance with an otherwise valid law prohibiting conduct that the State is free to regulate. On the contrary, the record of more than a century of our free exercise jurisprudence contradicts that proposition.
The district court’s conclusion is unassailable. The case is a reminder of the importance of Smith. The Westboro Baptist Church should be treated like all other picketers. Matthew Snyder’s funeral at a Catholic Church should be treated like all other funerals. Tort law should not be skewed for or against religious plaintiffs and defendants. “Laws . . . are made for the government of actions, and while they cannot interfere with mere religious belief and opinions, they may with practices. . . . Can [Snyder or Phelps] excuse his practices to the contrary because of his religious belief? To permit this would be to make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land, and in effect to permit every citizen to become a law unto himself.”
Snyder v. Phelps involves tort law and free speech. Unfortunately, the district court repeatedly referred to defendants’ “religious opinion” in deciding the free speech issues. The word “religious” should be deleted and ignored. The outcome depends purely upon how constitutional free speech rights affect state tort law.