Gladstone repeals ordinance prohibiting picketing at funerals

The Kansas City Star/April 27, 2009

With the possibility its ban on funeral protests could be declared unconstitutional, the Gladstone City Council on Monday rescinded its prohibition of picketing at funerals.

The council voted unanimously after advice from its city attorney.

By repealing the ordinance, Gladstone is allowed to terminate a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the ordinance and the expense of the litigation, City Counselor David A. Ramsay told the council.

Shirley L. Phelps-Roper of Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka filed the lawsuit in February, saying the ordinance violated her freedom of speech. The church's organized pickets of service members' funerals have drawn harsh criticism.

Phelps-Roper sought a preliminary injunction prohibiting Gladstone from enforcing the ordinance until a federal judge in Kansas City rules on a state law banning such protests. Earlier this month, a federal judge in Kansas City granted an injunction against Gladstone.

The ordinance's repeal also allows "the underlying issues of the constitutionality and the extent of regulation of picketing and protesting at funerals to be determined through a lawsuit between Phelps and the state of Missouri," Ramsay said.

Gladstone based its ordinance, which passed in January 2007, on restrictions the Missouri General Assembly passed in 2006 that ban picketing and other protests at or near a funeral or procession. Such protests must be concluded an hour before the service begins or started an hour after the funeral.

Phelps-Roper's attorneys indicated that her lawsuit against the city would be dismissed if the ordinance was repealed, Ramsay told the council in a memo recommending that the ordinance be repealed.

"I hope that should the courts deem such an ordinance is enforceable, that this council will reconsider and put it back on the books as quickly as possible," said Les Smith, mayor pro tem.

Mayor Carol Rudi said she would agree with that.

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