Martinsville Bulletin, Inc.
P. O. Box 3711
204 Broad Street
Martinsville, Virginia 24115
Toll Free: 800-234-6575
Armstrong blasts Cuccinelli on funeral protest case
Del. Ward Armstrong
Thursday, June 3, 2010
By BULLETIN AND AP REPORTS -
State Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli's decision not to get involved in a legal battle between the family of a deceased Marine and a controversial, fundamentalist church is inexcusable, according to Del. Ward Armstrong.
Armstrong, D-Collinsville and House minority leader, said Wednesday that he does not know what Cuccinelli's motives were, and he does not care.
He said that Cuccinelli's decision amounted to "not sticking up for" families that have tragically lost members, and that is "just beyond me."�
"It is inexcusable to stand by and call something vile and not (try to) do something about it," Armstrong added.
Another area lawmaker echoed Armstrong's anger.
Del. Don Merricks, R-Pittsylvania County, said "there are certain times when your right to free speech ends," such as when it is mainly aimed at hurting a person or family.
Virginia was one of two states - the other was Maine - that did not join a friend-of-the-court brief Tuesday supporting the father of a Marine whose funeral in 2006 drew anti-gay protesters carrying inflammatory signs.
"Sometimes they (protesters) go too far" in their comments, Merricks said, and as a lawmaker, "sometimes you have to make a statement" in opposition, even if you know it will not have much impact.
State Sen. Roscoe Reynolds, D-Ridgeway, and Del. Danny Marshall, R-Danville, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
During Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder's funeral in Maryland, protesters from the Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church held signs with messages such as "Thank God for dead soldiers" and "God Hates the USA/Thank God for 9/11."�
"It is uncouth that they would stoop to do things like that," Merricks said.
Followers of the church's leader, Fred Phelps, have picketed military funerals nationwide because they believe war deaths are punishment for tolerance of homosexuality in the United States.
A jury in Baltimore awarded the soldier's father, Albert Snyder, $5 million in damages, but a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond overturned the verdict, ruling that the signs contained "imaginative and hyperbolic rhetoric" protected by the First Amendment.
Albert Snyder appealed that ruling to the Supreme Court, which is to hear the case this fall. In the meantime, 48 states and the District of Columbia have filed a friend-of-the-court brief, contending they have a compelling interest in protecting the sanctity of funerals.
Through a spokesman, Cuccinelli on Tuesday said his office decided not to participate in the brief in Snyder v. Phelps because he thinks the case could set a precedent severely curtailing certain aspects of free speech.
The spokesman, Brian Gottstein, indicated that Cuccinelli does not agree with the positions of Phelps and Westboro Baptist.
During a telephone press conference Wednesday, Armstrong said that while he generally supports the right to free speech, "not all speech is protected" under the law. Examples he cited include people shouting "Fire!" in crowded theaters and the prohibition of advertising tobacco products on television.
"Families are entitled to a little privacy and dignity" at funerals, he said.
Armstrong said the Court of Appeals' decision is "not the law of the land" and if Cuccinelli can "affect change ... he ought to do that."�
"He was elected to represent 7 million people in this state, not a small right-wing constituency," said Armstrong.
"He has an obligation to represent the viewpoint of a majority of Virginians," the delegate said, adding he thinks Cuccinelli's decision not to take a stand on the court case is "reprehensible" to most people in the state.
Cuccinelli has stirred up controversy during his first few months in office, such as by suing the federal government over health care reform laws and clean energy policies and telling public college presidents not to enforce policies protecting the rights of gay people.
"It's been one thing (controversy) after another since he took office in January," Armstrong said.
Gottstein said Wednesday that he thinks Armstrong is using Cuccinelli's decision to score political points.
Armstrong said that although he is a high-ranking state lawmaker, he does not think there is any type of legal action he can pursue against Cuccinelli to try to reverse the attorney general's decision.
"I'm just trying to put as much public pressure on him as I can to (try and stop) this type of behavior" by Cuccinelli, Armstrong said.