Archive for Saturday, March 24, 2007

Judge upholds law banning funeral pickets

March 24, 2007

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— A federal judge on Friday upheld significant portions of a state law that limits when and where people may protest at funerals.

The 2006 law was aimed at a small fundamentalist Kansas church whose members picket burials of U.S. troops killed in combat, arguing that the deaths are God's punishment for homosexuals.

The law prohibits protesters from being within 300 feet of a cemetery, funeral home, church or synagogue either one hour before or after a burial service.

The Ohio chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, with a member of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., as a plaintiff, had sought a federal restraining order, saying the state cannot pass a law restricting freedom of speech.

But U.S. District Court Judge Donald Nugent in Cleveland said the law upholds a long tradition in American culture of allowing mourners to pay their respects to the deceased without disruption - and gives protesters ample alternatives to express their views.

However, Nugent struck down a portion of the law that places a 300-foot, "floating buffer zone" around funeral procession routes, saying it is unconstitutionally broad.

Supporters of the law called the ruling a victory.

"The families and loved ones of our honorable service men and women have earned the right to pay their last respects in peace and security," said Gov. Ted Strickland, a Democrat who took office in January.

At least 27 states have enacted laws restricting funeral picketing, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Messages seeking comment were left Friday night with the Ohio ACLU, and calls went unanswered at the Westboro Baptist Church.

The church has argued that the protests are a form of religious expression and that mourners can avert their eyes from unwanted forms of speech. Some of the members have held signs reading "God Hates Fags" and "God Made IEDs," a reference to roadside bombs.

In his ruling, Nugent rejected the argument that funeral mourners can easily look away, adding that the state may protect citizens from unwelcome or offensive forms of communication when privacy interests are invaded.

Church members planned to picket the funeral of Army Sgt. Robert Carr in Warren, Ohio, on Monday, according to the church's Web site. Carr was killed in Iraq earlier this month when an improvised explosive device detonated beneath the armored vehicle he was driving, his father said.

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