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Archive for Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Federal appeals court: Town can limit funeral protests

Ordinance in response to Westboro Baptist Church activities

October 17, 2012

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— A St. Louis suburb can enforce a funeral protest ordinance aimed at preventing picketing by an anti-gay Kansas church, a federal appeals court ruled Tuesday.

The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling reverses a previous ruling by a three-judge panel of the court. The panel ruling last year prohibited the St. Louis County town of Manchester, Mo., from enforcing the law it drafted in response to activities by members of Topeka, Kan.-based Westboro Baptist Church.

A lawsuit claiming the Manchester ordinance violated the First Amendment right to free speech was filed by Shirley Phelps-Roper, a Westboro member and daughter of pastor Fred Phelps.

Members of the church frequently protest at funerals of soldiers with signs containing messages like “Thank God for dead soldiers” and “Thank God for 9/11,” claiming the deaths are God’s punishment for American immorality and tolerance of homosexuality and abortion.

The Manchester ordinance allows for protest activities but with limitations. Among them: Protesters are not allowed within 300 feet of a funeral or burial service while it is occurring and for one hour before and one hour after.

Eighth Circuit Judge Diana Murphy wrote that the ordinance “survives First Amendment scrutiny because it serves a significant government interest, it is narrowly tailored, and it leaves open ample alternative channels for communication.”

Judge Lavenski Smith agreed, though he wrote in a concurring opinion that the appeals court “is extending the circumference of what this circuit has previously found constitutes a significant government interest.”

Courts around the country have wrestled with city ordinances and state laws aimed at keeping Westboro members away from funerals. Some laws, like a statewide law in Missouri, have been overturned. Others have been upheld.

Manchester City Attorney Patrick Gunn said the Manchester law was written to resemble an Ohio law already upheld by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

“We were confident that eventually our ordinance was not in any way unconstitutional or overimposing on a person’s right to exercise free speech,” Gunn said.

Tony Rothert, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney who represented Phelps-Roper, said a decision about whether to appeal will be made soon.

“We think it’s a slippery slope not justified by the First Amendment or Supreme Court precedent,” Rothert said. “Ultimately that’s probably an issue for the Supreme Court to decide.”

Comments

Liberty275 1 year, 6 months ago

I think the SCOTUS will vacate this law. The government can restrict where you can protest, but they can't tell an adult he cannot legally walk down a public sidewalk with a sign because of the time of day, even if that time coincides with a burial 300 feet away.

Tthe goofy stuff phelps does doesn't approach any limit which would justify such a violation of free speech on public property. I can live with 300 feet as long as their are adequate noise ordinances so that no ceremony can be disrupted.

Besides, you have a choice, 300 feet from the grave or on the sidewalk in front of the soldier's kid's school. Or maybe a month in front of the wife's workplace. Maybe just in front of the soldier's home for a while. What new and oppressive laws will you write then?

The only sane answer is to keep phelps off of private property and ignore his comic book message until it is relegated to the dustbin of junk ideas that humans get wrong from time to time.

The saddest part of all of this is that a young man died and petty politicians think so little of his sacrifice that they are willing to disregard the rights he was protecting.

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Alex Keiffer 1 year, 6 months ago

Westboro Baptist should be prohibited from protesting at funerals. I'm all for that. If you think about it, Westboro obviously isn't a church if they protest at people's funerals. If they are a church, then they sure are a poor excuse for one!

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Matthew Herbert 1 year, 6 months ago

The United States Supreme Court might have something to say about that...

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