ACLU of Eastern Missouri Challenges Law Banning Pickets and Protests One Hour Before or After a Funeral

Affiliate: ACLU of Missouri
July 21, 2006 12:00 am

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ST. LOUIS, MO — The American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri filed a lawsuit today on behalf of Shirley L. Phelps-Roper, a member of a controversial conservative Christian church, over a Missouri law that infringes on her rights to religious liberty and free speech.

The lawsuit challenges Missouri laws banning protest or picketing “in front of or about” any location in which a funeral is being held or any funeral procession. The law was enacted to prevent members of Phelps-Roper’s church from conducting their protests, which many find to by anti-gay and anti-American.

“Free speech and the right to protest peacefully extend to all Americans, even if their messages are unpopular and distasteful,” said Brenda Jones, Executive Director of the ACLU of Eastern Missouri. “The government cannot pick and choose whose rights it is going to honor. Laws that restrict First Amendment rights never harm only one group; they pave the way for restrictions on the right to dissent for all groups.”

The current version of the law was signed by Missouri Governor Matt Blunt on July 6. The law makes it a crime to protest or picket one hour before or one hour after a funeral and in front of or about any location where a funeral is being held. The statue defines a funeral as “the ceremonies, processions and memorial services held in connection with the burial or cremation of the dead.” It expands on a February 2006 law banning pickets and protests only in front of a church, cemetery or funeral establishment.

According to the lawsuit, the law violates a number of First Amendment provisions, including the rights to free speech, free expression of religion and free association. Comments by Blunt and other politicians have made it clear that this is a content-based restriction on First Amendment liberties, directed primarily at limiting the forum in which Phelps-Roper and other members of the church can express their message.

Phelps-Roper, a resident of Topeka, Kansas, is a member of Westboro Baptist Church, which follows primitive Baptist and Calvinist doctrines. Its members believe that homosexuality is a sin and an abomination and further believe that God is punishing America for the sin of homosexuality by killing Americans, including soldiers. For them, the purpose of picketing and protesting near funerals is to use an available public platform to publish their religious message. They believe that the public platform is the only place where their religious message can be delivered in a timely and relevant manner to those attending the funeral and those participating in the public events and displays outside the funeral.

“While we disagree with the message that tolerance of gay people has corrupted America, it is not the job of the government to silence speech that we don’t want to hear,” said Anthony Rothert, Legal Director of the ACLU of Eastern Missouri. “The response to speech that is offensive should be more speech explaining why we disagree, not having the police arrest those who take an opposite view. Allowing speech we find offensive in public forums is one cost of the freedom that defines America.”

According to the lawsuit, the law is interpreted differently in cities across the state because of its vague terms. In some counties, officials have applied the law in such a broad manner that it would restrict the speech of any private resident during a funeral, regardless of their message. In other counties, groups with opposing views have been allowed to protest without the law being enforced against them while Phelps-Roper and her group have been threatened with arrest.

The lawsuit was filed in Federal District Court for the Western District of Missouri. It has been assigned to Judge Nanette Laughrey. Phelps-Roper asks the court for a declaration that the protest ban is unconstitutional and an injunction prohibiting it from being enforced.

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