FIRST, Al Snyder lost his 20-year-old son, a Marine hero, in Iraq.

Then he had to endure a protest by homophobic religious fanatics who showed up at the funeral carrying signs with messages like "Semper Fi Fags" and "Thank God for Dead Soldiers."

Now, Snyder is personally responsible for $16,500 in legal costs incurred by the protesters.

I'm asking Daily News readers to consider helping him pay that legal bill.

Here's the background on the case. Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder died in combat in Iraq on March 3, 2006. His funeral, held one week later at St. John's Catholic Church in Westminster, Md., should have been a sacred farewell to a fallen American hero.

It was instead hijacked by Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church, who have taken to protesting at military funerals to publicize a perverse message: The death of American soldiers is God's punishment for America's tolerance of homosexuality.

THE PLACARDS they displayed at Lance Cpl. Snyder's funeral relayed that point using the following language: "God Hates the USA," "Fag Troops," "You're Going to Hell," and "God Hates You."

Snyder, Lance Cpl. Snyder's father, told me he was forced to reposition his two daughters as they rode in the funeral procession so they would not have to see such filth en route to their brother's funeral.

Snyder sued Phelps and Westboro Baptist, initially winning a $10.9 million award from a jury that was later reduced by the court to $5 million.

Westboro Baptist, of Topeka, Kansas, appealed, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed the trial court's verdict. Earlier this month, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.

My view is that while the First Amendment enumerates perhaps the most basic of American rights - freedom of speech, as well as the freedom to freely practice religion and to peaceably assemble - the courts have been amenable to restricting such freedoms in the past.

The First Amendment doesn't protect those found guilty of dispersing messages containing defamation, obscenity and fighting words (yelling "Fire!" in a theater, for example). It's my hope that the court carves out a similar limitation in the case of protests at military funerals.

But in the meantime, pursuant to the federal rules of civil procedure, Snyder, as the losing party in the federal appellate case, has been assessed with a legal bill. It holds him personally responsible for a significant portion of the litigation costs of his legal opponents, Phelps and Westboro Baptist. In this case, that includes docketing fees and printing charges totaling exactly $16,510.80.

Snyder has set up a legal-defense fund, and I'm asking Daily News readers to join me in contributing anything they can to help the Snyder family pay these costs. You can make a donation online by visiting MatthewSnyder.org and clicking "Donate" in the upper-left corner. Or you can send a check payable to "Al Snyder Fund" to:

Barley Snyder LLC

100 E. Market St.

York, Pa. 17401

Should he be relieved of this burden by the Supreme Court, Snyder says that 100 percent of the donated funds will be used to aid veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. So will any funds raised in excess of the court-ordered total.

Those who need additional motivation to rally to the Snyders' defense should consider the language posted on Westboro Baptist's Web site after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001:

"Thank God for September 11. Thank God for those planes. God ordained and decreed these acts. He determined in eternity to hurl those airplanes, like fiery darts out of the sky. He used the evil followers of Osama bin Laden to punish even more evil people."

THE DISPARITY between those sentiments and the values embodied by the Snyder family could not be wider.

Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder is a fallen American hero. His father, Al, is a decent man who deserves much more than the burden our judicial system has given him.

Please help correct this offense by visiting MatthewSnyder.org and contributing to the Snyders' defense fund.

Listen to Michael Smerconish weekdays 5-9 a.m. on the Big Talker, 1210/AM. Read him Sundays in the Inquirer. Contact him via the Web at www.smerconish.com.