Missouri court issues mixed ruling on funeral protests

Associated Press/April 26, 2013

Jefferson City, Missouri - A federal appeals court on Friday upheld a Missouri law banning protests within 300 feet of funerals but struck down a broader law that could have kept protesters even farther away.

The decision by a panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals stems from a challenge to a pair of 2006 Missouri laws enacted after protests of military members' funerals by a Kansas-based church that denounces homosexuality.

The appeals court said one law barring protests "in front of or about any location at which a funeral is held" violates First Amendment free speech rights because it creates a buffer zone of an undetermined size. It upheld a separate law setting the 300-foot protest buffer around funerals and graveside memorial services, but the court said it cannot apply to funeral processions that wind their way through town.

The common factor in the mixed decision was the precision with which Missouri's laws were - or were not - written.

The 300-foot buffer is "narrowly tailored to serve Missouri's interest in protecting the peace and privacy of funeral attendees and leaves open ample alternative channels for communication" by protesters, U.S. Circuit Judge Kermit Bye wrote in the opinion by a three-judge panel.

Although it ruled the 300-foot buffer did not violate free-speech protections, the appeals panel sent the case back to a trial judge to consider several other complaints brought against the law by Shirley Phelps-Roper, a member of the Topeka, Kan.-based Westboro Baptist Church.

"It's certainly a victory in that one statute is found unconstitutional and the other is severely narrowed," said Anthony Rothert, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney who represented Phelps-Roper.

A spokeswoman for Attorney General Chris Koster said Friday that the office was reviewing the ruling and declined to comment further.

Courts around the country have wrestled in recent years with local laws aimed at keeping Westboro members away from funerals. Church members contend God is punishing the U.S. for its general acceptance of sinful actions and often specifically cite homosexuality, regardless of whether the funeral is for someone who was gay.

After Westboro members protested the 2005 funeral of a soldier killed in Iraq, Missouri lawmakers responded in 2006 by passing a general prohibition against protests and pickets near funerals, from one hour before the funerals start until an hour after they end.

Concerned about potential legal challenges, Missouri lawmakers a few months later passed a second law containing the specific 300-foot buffer zone but included wording making it effective only if the more general prohibition was invalidated in court.

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