(CN) - The Westboro Baptist Church was protected by the First Amendment when it picketed the funeral of a Marine killed in Iraq with signs stating, "Thank God for dead soldiers" and "Fag troops," the Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday. Justice Samuel Alito, alone in his dissent, condemned the church, which he said should not be cleared from the $5 million verdict awarded to the Marine's family. "Our profound national commitment to free and open debate is not a license for the vicious verbal assault that occurred in this case," Alito wrote.
Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts also had strong words for the church, while defending its right to peaceful protest.
"Westboro believes that America is morally flawed; many Americans might feel the same about Westboro," Roberts wrote. "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.
"Speech is powerful," the majority opinion continues. "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. 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. That choice requires that we shield Westboro from tort liability for its picketing in this case."
Albert Snyder had sued the Topeka, Kan.-based church, founder Fred Phelps Sr., and Phelps' daughters, Shirley Phelps-Roper and Rebekah Phelps-Davis, after they picketed his son's funeral in Westminster, Md.
Snyder's son, Matthew, died in Iraq in March 2006.
Phelps, his two daughters and four of his grandchildren traveled from Topeka to Westminster to protest the funeral. The fundamentalist church, which was founded in 1955, has 60 to 70 members, 50 of whom are related to its founder.
Their signs contained messages such as, "America is doomed," "You're going to hell," "God hates the USA," "Pope in hell," and "Thank God for dead soldiers."
Westboro church members believe that military deaths are God's way of punishing the nation and the military for tolerating homosexuality and other forms of immorality. They publicize their message by picketing various events, including more than 600 funerals to date. This year, the church promised to, but backed down from, picketing the funeral of the 9-year-old girl killed in the Tucson shooting spree and assassination attempt of congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.
Justice Roberts said that the church has protection under the First Amendment to broadcast its message, even if is "outrageous." Speech cannot be muffled just because it is outrageous and distasteful to some or most people, the decision states.