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Monday, May 20, 2024 | Back issues
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Church Protesters Get Court to Topple MO Law

ST. LOUIS (CN) - Siding with protesters of the Catholic church, the 8th Circuit on Monday struck down Missouri's restrictions on demonstrations near places of worship.

Missouri's House of Worship Protection Act prohibits intentionally disturbing a "house of worship by using profane discourse, rude or indecent behavior ... either within the house of worship or so near it as to disturb the order and solemnity of the worship services."

The law came under fire in 2012 from several protesters, including Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), a group that often gathers outside of a Catholic friary in St. Louis that is home to a priest accused of child molestation.

SNAP and Call to Action, a group that wants the church to ordain women and accept gay parishioners, among other things, challenged Missouri's law under the First Amendment.

A federal judge denied the protesters an injunction, however, and later granted summary judgment to the various state and St. Louis officials named as defendants.

The 8th Circuit reversed Monday, finding that Missouri's law tramples free-speech rights.

In forbidding "profane discourse and rude or indecent behavior" that could disturb worship services, Missouri's law "draws content-based distinctions on the type of expression permitted near a house of worship," according to the ruling.

Since these content-based distinctions are not essential to helping Missouri protect the free exercise of religion, the law in question is not narrowly tailored, the court found.

Such "regulation of profane and rude speech runs 'a substantial risk of suppressing ideas in the process,'" Judge Diana Murphy wrote for a three-member panel.

"It impermissibly requires enforcement authorities to look to the content of the speaker's message in order to enforce the statute," Murphy continued. "The ban on 'profane' speech, for example, also appears intended to protect audiences from the effect that the content of certain messages may have on them."

An attorney for the protesters with the American Civil Liberties Union applauded the ruling.

"The House of Worship Protection Act has had a chilling effect on our clients because it intentionally targets their speech," ACLU of Missouri legal director Tony Rothert said in a statement. "While the messages about sexual abuse and the need for reform might be unsettling to some, they are protected by the Constitution."

Judges Roger Wollman and James Loken concurred. The court remanded the case for further proceedings.

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