A person would need a vivid and disturbed imagination to come up with a more disgusting way to test the nation's commitment to free speech than that of the Westboro Baptist Church, based in Kansas.
Normally, this page goes out of its way not to criticize the legitimate actions of churches or organized religions. The First Amendment's guarantee of religious freedom is perhaps the strongest pillar in the structure of freedom and liberty. But we have no trouble denouncing the Westboro Church for its tactics, which amount to loud and insulting protests at the solemn funerals of American soldiers killed in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
They hold signs that blame military deaths on those who support gay rights; they insist each death is a form of divine punishment for the sins of the nation. They chant and yell, and they intrude on a moment that is tender and poignant, adding to the sorrow of families whose loved one deserves the utmost honor and respect.
But don't be surprised if the verdict of a federal jury this week gets overturned.
The jury in Baltimore slapped the church with a $10.9 million verdict for invading the privacy and intentionally inflicting emotional distress on the family of a Marine lance corporal killed in Iraq.
We wouldn't be surprised if most people believed that verdict was too light, even though it exceeds the church's net worth by several times. But the First Amendment is a serious thing, and its guarantees of both free speech and free religion do not make exceptions for the most disturbing examples of either.
Cemeteries would be advised to do as Olympic organizers here once did allow for time, place and manner restrictions on protests at funerals. Many states already have passed laws that restrict such protests, responding to the church's activities. Even those restrictions, reasonable those they seem, might be challenged in court. First Amendment experts note that positive demonstrations lauding the deceased as a hero would likely be allowed. That would make the prohibition on negative demonstrations content-based.
Our guess is most Americans would find these distinctions ridiculous. A funeral is no place for political speech and spectacle except that the Westboro members truly believe otherwise as a matter of their faith.
That faith will test the limits of America's commitment to tolerance.