Archive for Saturday, July 22, 2006

Phelps group files suit against Missouri law

July 22, 2006

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— A Kansas church group that routinely protests at military funerals across the country filed a suit Friday in federal court, claiming the Missouri law banning such pickets infringed on the members' religious freedoms and right to free speech.

Missouri's statute bans picketing and protests "in front of or about" any location where a funeral occurs, from an hour before the funeral begins until an hour after it ends. A number of other state laws and a federal law, signed in May by President Bush, bar such protests within a certain distance from a cemetery or funeral.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Jefferson City. It will test lawmakers' ability to target the Rev. Fred Phelps and his fundamentalist Westboro Baptist Church, constitutional scholars say.

"I told the nation as each state went after these laws that if the day came that they got in our way, that we would sue them," said Phelps' daughter, Shirley Phelps-Roper, the lead plaintiff and a spokeswoman for the Topeka, Kan.-based church. "At this hour, the wrath of God is pouring out on this country."

The church claims God is allowing soldiers, coal miners and others to be killed because the United States tolerates homosexuals. Westboro Baptist has outraged mourning communities across the U.S. by showing up at soldiers' funerals with signs that read "God Hates Fags."

In the lawsuit, the ACLU claims the wording of Missouri's ban, which restricts protests "about" any funeral establishment, seeks to limit the group's free speech based on the content of its message. The plaintiffs ask the court to declare the ban unconstitutional and to issue an injunction to keep it from being enforced, which would allow the group to resume picketing.

Missouri lawmakers were spurred to action after the church protested last August in St. Joseph at the funeral of Army Spc. Edward Myers.

Phelps-Ropers' attorney said though he disagreed with Westboro's message, the group had a right to spread it.

"This law really was made to silence a particular group, and I'm able to see that that's dangerous," said Anthony Rothert, ACLU legal director in St. Louis. "It may be a group that I disagree with that the government is trying to silence today, but it could be a group that I agree with tomorrow."

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