The Supreme Court, in an 8-1 decision, ruled Wednesday that members of the renegade Westboro Baptist Church have a constitutionally protected right to protest military funerals even though their demonstrations are widely despised and deplored.

The case presented the justices with a high-profile question about the breadth of First Amendment speech and assembly protections. A majority of justices ruled that these fundamental rights outweigh the concerns of grieving family members who would rather not deal with what they say are obnoxious protesters from the Kansas church.

“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,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in his majority opinion. “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.”

Justice Samuel Alito was the only dissent, writing that the church protests simply go too far.

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