There won't be much sympathy for the fundamentalist Westboro Baptist Church from Topeka, Kansas, following their $10.9m (£5.2m) fine for picketing the funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq -with placards bearing slogans such as 'Thank God for dead soldiers' and 'You're going to hell'. Members of the church, aka 'The most hated family in America', believe that the soldiers' deaths are God's punishment for America's sins: more specifically, for homosexuality (they have also picketed the funerals of AIDS victims).
However, the church is appealing on the grounds of free speech, and it has to be said that the case raises interesting questions about the freedom to express one's beliefs. Isn't the court that imposed this hefty penalty simply a mirror image of those faith groups who claim the right not to be 'offended' by anti-religious books, plays, cartoons, etc? If secularists have a right to offend believers, don't they also have a right to offend us - and shouldn't we just put up with it?
I suppose the response to this might be that, while there should be freedom to cause offence to the beliefs of others - there is no constitutional right to cause hurt and distress to another person. The religious extremists in this case were convicted of invasion of privacy and of causing 'emotional distress' to the families of dead soldiers.
Beyond this, I would argue that, while freedom of belief should certainly be protected, the freedom to propagate those beliefs in public should perhaps be subject to certain conditions. I'm aware this is a tricky area, and there's a danger of giving comfort to those regimes - Saudi Arabia and Pakistan come to mind - that restrict the rights of Christians and other non-Muslims to share their faith. However, it could be argued that citizens also have the right to protection from aggressive proselytising in public places and that those spaces should be preserved as faith-neutral zones.
The Westboro fanatics are at the extreme end of the spectrum, but I'm surely not the only one to be irritated by the vociferous preaching and amplified hymn-singing of the evangelical groups that are often to be found in British shopping centres on Saturday mornings. Other members of my family think I'm being over-sensitive, and betraying my unresolved conflicts with my evangelical past, when I grumble at this intrusion. But in the Midland town where we used to live, we couldn't walk down the high street at the weekend without being regaled with sermons on hellfire and divine punishment by preachers from a particularly fundamentalist local church. I've often wondered why local councils allow this, and whether they would give the same licence to (say) extreme Islamic groups to preach hate against Jews or gays outside Sainsburys.
The trouble is, these fundamentalist christians - whether the virulent homophobes of Topeka or the relatively benign happy-clappy types in our high streets - are so convinced of their rightness that they can't see that others might have a different view of the world, or be upset by their rantings. I know it's a difficult issue on which to adjudicate, but I'd argue for keeping the public square free of expressions of religious belief that impose themselves on others, and particularly of those that stir up hatred or cause distress.