Judge: Mo. funeral protest ban unconstitutional
A federal judge Monday ruled that Missouri laws restricting protests near funerals are unconstitutional.
Missouri legislators passed two laws in 2006 in response to protests at servicemembers’ funerals by members of Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan. The church contends the deaths are God’s punishment for the U.S. tolerating homosexuality.
U.S. District Judge Fernando Gaitan ruled the laws violate the right of free speech guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.
N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper has joined his counterparts from 47 other states and the District of Columbia in support of a lawsuit against a Topeka, Kan., church whose members picket military funerals.
The suit, scheduled to go before the U.S. Supreme Court, pits the rights of private people to assemble peacefully for a funeral - a religious ceremony - against protestors’ rights to free speech.
Westboro Baptist Church, founded by Fred Phelps and consisting mostly of his relatives, has for years sent its members to picket military funerals and other events across the country. They recently made stops at several Grand Strand schools and churches, where they were met with counter-protests. South Carolina has also voiced its support for the lawsuit.
Lori Taylor could barely contain her emotions.
She was standing across from Socastee High School on Friday morning in counter-protest of the five members of Westboro Baptist Church standing about a hundred yards away holding signs and yelling that God hates homosexuals and many others.
With the roar of motorcycles and traffic in the background, six members of Westboro Baptist Church stood on the corner of Eighth Avenue North and U.S. 17 in North Myrtle Beach wearing T-shirts and holding placards with messages such as "God Is Your Enemy" and "Divorce + Remarriage = Adultery."
The fundamentalist group from Topeka, Kan., was led by Shirley Phelps-Roper, who brought four of her 11 children - Isaiah, 21; Zachariah, 19; Noah, 11; and Luke, 8; along with her 6-year-old niece, Mariah - to picket at Our Lady Star of the Sea Catholic Church, Ocean Drive Presbyterian Church and Barefoot Church on Sunday.
The primary state law had barred protests near any church, cemetery or funeral establishment from an hour before until an hour after any funeral ceremony, procession or memorial service. The secondary measure specifically stated protesters must stay back at least 300 feet from ceremonies and processions. Both provisions levied the same penalty: up to six months in jail and a $500 fine for a first offense and up to one year in jail and a $1,000 fine for repeat offenders.
Gaitan concluded Missouri officials did not demonstrate the protest restrictions served a significant government interest nor that they had been narrowly tailored to prevent the harm of interruptions of funeral services. The judge wrote he was sympathetic to the argument people attending a funeral deserve some protection but noted a federal appeals court already had previously rejected that argument.
The ruling came in a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of Westboro church member Shirley Phelps-Roper. Last year, Missouri officials were barred from enforcing the protest restrictions while the lawsuit was pending. Missouri Attorney General Koster appealed that decision but the U.S. Supreme Court refused without comment to consider the case.
Koster also plans to appeal Gaitan’s latest ruling, said spokeswoman Nanci Gonder.
Gonder said Gaitan’s hands were tied by a federal appeals court ruling that there was no compelling government interest in protecting people from unwanted speech outside their homes. She said the attorney general’s office would ask the appeals court to "reconsider the abhorrent acts" church members "routinely inflict upon our servicemen and women."
ACLU attorney Tony Rothert said Monday that Missouri’s restrictions created too large a zone in public areas where speech was restricted and made even non-disruptive speech illegal.
"Just not liking speech isn’t enough reason," Rothert said.
Rothert added that the ban was aimed at the Kansas church but could have affected others. For example, he said it could have made it illegal to picket anywhere a funeral procession happened to drive past.
Numerous states have passed laws restricting protests at funerals; Phelps-Roper also challenged a similar law in Ohio. Missouri’s law was sponsored by two St. Joseph lawmakers after Westboro members protested outside the 2005 funeral of a soldier from their legislative districts. State lawmakers said they approved two laws so there was a fallback in case one was challenged in court.
According to court documents, members of the Kansas church say they have held more than 42,000 pickets, including more than 500 at funerals.