Kansas church sues, claiming Mo. funeral picket law chills free speech

Saturday, July 22, 2006

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- A Kansas church group that routinely protests at military funerals across the country filed a suit in federal court Friday, 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 is held, 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 their 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.

The suit names as defendants Gov. Matt Blunt, Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon and Mark Goodwin, a prosecuting attorney for Carroll County.

A Nixon spokesman said the state would mount a major legal defense.

"We're not going to acquiesce to anything that they're asking for in this lawsuit," said Scott Holste. "We will aggressively defend Missouri's law against this challenge."

Missouri lawmakers were spurred to action after the church protested in St. Joseph last August, at the funeral of Army Spc. Edward Myers. The law makes violation a misdemeanor, with fines and possible jail time that increase for repeat offenders.

Phelps-Rogers' 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."

In May, Bush signed the Respect for America's Fallen Heroes Act, passed by Congress largely in response to the church's activities. Several other states have also passed or considered legislation restricting when and where protesters may demonstrate at funerals and limiting protests deemed "disorderly." Violators can be fined or jailed.

First Amendment scholars said the Missouri challenge could give pause to state legislators writing similar bills.

"Government has no interest in restricting protests that aren't disruptive and are peaceful," said David Greene, executive director of the First Amendment Project in Oakland, Calif. "I would guess this question will be tested in a few different forms."

Last month, the father of a Marine whose funeral was picketed by Westboro members filed an invasion-of-privacy suit against the demonstrators. It is believed to be the first lawsuit of its kind.

Phelps-Roper, who is also an attorney, said the church would fight other laws which members felt restricted their free speech rights, and hoped to resume protesting in Missouri soon.

"If these laws interfere with our ability to deliver this message, then we will," she said.

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