Full 8th Circuit Tosses Fight to Protest Funerals
ST. LOUIS (CN) - A Missouri city can ban funeral protests, the full 8th Circuit ruled, reversing an earlier decision that sided with the controversial Westboro Baptist Church.
The city of Manchester passed the law in 2007, making it illegal for groups to protest within an hour and 300 feet of a burial or funeral service, though picketing along the procession route is allowed. The Westboro Baptist Church filed a lawsuit in 2009, claiming the law violated its right to free speech because it was too vague.
Westboro leader Fred Phelps believes that America is being punished for its tolerance of homosexuality with the death of its soldiers. Westboro members have picketed military funerals across the country holding signs that say things such as "Thank God for Dead Soldiers" and "God Hates Fags."
After a federal judge found that the First Amendment protects peaceful funeral protests, a three-judge panel of 8th Circuit affirmed in October 2011.
In a rehearing en banc, Manchester argued that Westboro's picketing rights cannot outweigh its interest in protecting the peace and privacy of citizens saying their farewells to loved ones. The 11-judge court this timed reversed unamimously, saying Manchester's protest restrictions are limited enough in scope to avoid First Amendment violations.
"We conclude that Manchester's amended ordinance is narrowly tailored because it places very few limitations on picketers and the city's significant interest in protecting the privacy of funeral attendees justifies the 300 foot restriction for a specific limited time and a short duration," according to the lead opinion authored by Judge Diana Murphy. "The Supreme Court judged a 500 foot restriction on congregating outside foreign embassies to be narrowly tailored to protect security interests, as well as a 100 foot zone around health care facilities to protect patients from interference with their privacy, and the area 'before or about' a home to protect residential privacy. Manchester's amended ordinance eliminated any restrictions on processions. It was narrowed to eliminate restrictions on any such floating zones, and it now only places limitations within 300 feet of a funeral or burial. Picketers can still reasonably communicate their message to funeral attendees and others. Other than the narrow time and place restrictions in the ordinance, no limit is placed 'on the number of speakers or the noise level, including the use of amplification equipment' or 'on the number, size, text, or images of placards.'"