The heart says one thing, the head another on the U.S. Supreme Court's 8-1 decision that members of a Kansas church - OK, cult or hate group may be more like it - have a First Amendment right to protest at soldiers' funerals based, of all things, on their contempt for homosexuality and what they perceive as God's punishment for this nation's tolerance of it. Of course it makes no sense. In America you're free to make no sense.

The heart says one thing, the head another on the U.S. Supreme Court's 8-1 decision that members of a Kansas church - OK, cult or hate group may be more like it - have a First Amendment right to protest at soldiers' funerals based, of all things, on their contempt for homosexuality and what they perceive as God's punishment for this nation's tolerance of it. Of course it makes no sense. In America you're free to make no sense.


Indeed, in holding up signs at military funerals that communicate messages like "Thank God for Dead Soldiers" and "Fags Doom Nations," the behavior of Westboro Baptist Church founder Fred Phelps and his band of believers borders on mental illness. Targeting soldiers' grieving families, apparently out of their desire for attention at what tends to be a high-profile event in most communities - they target celebrities, too - is as despicable as it gets.


These are people who apparently have allowed themselves to be brainwashed free of any conscience. If the God Westboro members profess to believe in is coming after anybody to pass judgment and impose justice, perhaps they should look in the mirror.


And yet, with atypical consensus across the ideological board in Snyder v. Phelps - the former being Albert Snyder of York, Pa., father of Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, who lost his life in Iraq - the high court upheld the surpassing if sometimes gut-wrenching wisdom of the U.S. Constitution, when emotionally there was all the motivation in the world to have done just the opposite.


We quote Chief Justice John Roberts: "Speech is powerful. It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and - as it did here - inflict great pain. On the facts before us, we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker."


Why? Because "as a nation, we have chosen a different course - to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate," Roberts observed. "Westboro's funeral picketing is certainly hurtful and its contribution to public discourse may be negligible. But Westboro addressed matters of public import on public property, in a peaceful manner, in full compliance with the guidance of local officials." They kept their distance - in this case, 1,000 feet from the church where mourners were gathered - as mandated by state law, the likes of which have sprung up all over the country in response to Westboro, and with which the Supreme Court thankfully has no quarrel. Beyond the incendiary language on their signs, they protested quietly.


Absolutely this military family deserved better, and we share the anguish and anger they must feel, but if free speech is to have any real meaning in this country, we must permit even that speech which is unpopular, or all speech and with it other liberties are imperiled, depending on how the political winds might be swirling at any given moment. That cherished principle trumps all else, as arguably it should. It's part of the lifeblood of this nation, and that's what our soldiers fight for.


That said, we cannot bring ourselves to find fault with Justice Samuel Alito, the lone dissenter here. He wrote: "Our profound national commitment to free and open debate is not a license for the vicious verbal assault that occurred in this case." In a sense he was channeling predecessor Oliver Wendell Holmes, who wrote for a unanimous court in 1919 that free speech has its limits: "The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic. ... The question in every case is whether the words used ... create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent. It is a question of proximity and degree."


Alas, in this case, arguably the only "clear and present danger" the protesters were potentially courting was to themselves, from Americans rightly repulsed by their presence and behavior. They should count themselves fortunate to have largely escaped that fate, so far.


Perhaps the best way to deal with the Westboros of the world is to exercise one's own free speech rights, to confront and condemn and compete with their twisted views, exposing their inferiority in the marketplace of ideas. Disciplined counter-protests have been effective. The Patriot Guard Riders, a motorcycle group made up mostly of veterans, has attended many of these funerals by invitation and commendably helped shield grieving family members. To the degree other legal remedies can be pursued - on defamation, for instance, though it wasn't successful here - they should be.


Ultimately, no one should misconstrue this decision as a win for Westboro. It's a win for free speech and a Constitution that, again, means what it says. To be sure, with rights should come responsibilities. Unfortunately, the latter will always be lost on some. But the vast majority of citizens get it. Long after Phelps and his followers are gone, the Constitution will remain, battled-tested but still strong. As a nation we cannot go wrong in being true to it, though no one ever promised it would be easy.


Peoria, Ill., Journal Star