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Supreme Court Decisions Affect Service Members, Vets

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, March 2, 2011 – The U.S. Supreme Court has issued three decisions with military connections over the last two days.

In what may be the most contentious of the cases, the court ruled that members of a Westboro, Kan., church have the right to picket at funerals for service members killed in action.

Yesterday, the court reversed a lower court decision and decided a reservist had been the victim of bias due to his military service. Also yesterday, the court ruled that Veterans Affairs Department deadlines for veterans applying for benefits do not have “jurisdictional consequences.”

In the first case, Albert Snyder, the father of Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, who was killed in Iraq, sued the Westboro Baptist Church for picketing his son’s funeral. A jury found the Westboro group -- which says it conducts the protests because God hates the United States for its tolerance of homosexuality -- liable for inflicting emotional distress on the Snyder family, intrusion upon seclusion and civil conspiracy.

The Supreme Court voted 8-1 to reverse the lower court ruling, saying the Constitution’s First Amendment shields the group. The First Amendment states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

In one of yesterday’s decisions, the court ruled in favor of Army reservist Vincent Staub, who was fired in 2004 from his civilian position as an angiography technician at Proctor Hospital in Peoria, Ill., because of his military obligations.

Staub sued the hospital under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994, which forbids employers from denying employment, re-employment, retention in employment, promotion or any benefit of employment based on a reservist’s military obligations. A jury found the hospital liable, but the 7th Circuit Court reversed the decision.

The Supreme Court reversed the reversal yesterday, holding that if a supervisor motivated by antimilitary hostility performs an act intended to cause an adverse employment action, the employer is liable under the law.

In yesterday’s other decision, the court found that the deadline set up by the VA Department for filing supplemental disability benefits does not have jurisdictional consequence. The case -- brought by David Henderson, who since has died -- hinged on Henderson missing a 120-day deadline by 15 days. The court found for veterans, saying Congress regarded the deadline as a claim-processing rule.