Appeals court strikes down funeral protest ban

Associated Press/October 5, 2011

St. Louis -- A Missouri town cannot enforce an ordinance banning peaceful picketing outside of funerals, a federal appeals court ruled Wednesday.

The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a district court ruling in favor of members of Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., saying peaceful protests near funerals are protected by the First Amendment's right to free speech.

The city of Manchester, Mo., a St. Louis suburb, adopted an ordinance in 2007 in response to activities by Westboro members, who frequently protest at funerals of soldiers with signs containing messages like "Thank God for dead soldiers" and "Thank God for 9/11." Church members claim the deaths are God's punishment for American immorality and tolerance of homosexuality and abortion.

"These broad laws that prevent standing with a sign silently on a sidewalk do not further any government interest that would justify setting aside the First Amendment," said Tony Rothert, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, which represented Westboro members Shirley and Megan Phelps-Roper.

It wasn't clear if Manchester would appeal. Messages left with attorneys for the city were not returned.

Several courts around the country are dealing with city ordinances and state laws aimed at keeping Westboro Baptist members away from funerals of members of the military.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 8-1 in favor of Westboro Baptist in a lawsuit filed by Albert Snyder, the father of a fallen Marine who sued the church for the emotional pain they caused by showing up at his son Matthew's funeral.

Last month, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed two laws aimed at keeping protesters away from funerals.

Last year, a federal judge in Kansas City, Mo., struck down Missouri's funeral protest statute as unconstitutional.

But some rulings have favored the protest laws. Manchester's ordinance was modeled after a funeral protest statute in Ohio. Courts have upheld that statute.

The 8th Circuit saw things differently in the Manchester case.

"Allowing speech we find offensive in public forums is one cost of the freedoms that define America," Rothert said. "Today's decision vindicates the American tradition of allowing robust public debate on issues of public importance."

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