KANSAS CITY, Mo. (CN) – A federal judge has ruled that a Missouri law restricting protests at or near military funerals is unconstitutional. The state enacted the law in 2006 in response to protests from a Kansas Baptist church whose members protest at military funerals, claiming God is punishing U.S. soldiers because the country tolerates homosexuals.
U.S. District Judge Fernando Gaitan ruled that the law violates the First Amendment.
Shirley Phelps-Roper, wife of the pastor Westboro Baptist Church, of Topeka, sued Missouri and its Attorney General Chris Koster, claiming that “Americans have disregarded the commandments of God by engaging in sin and that God is thus exercising his wrath by killing Americans. In particular, plaintiff and other members of WBC perceive the homosexual movement as especially dangerous,” Gaitan wrote in his 19-page ruling.
Missouri’s law prohibited protest near any church, cemetery or funeral from an hour before to an hour after a funeral service. Protesters had to stay 300 feet from such ceremonies. Infractions were punishable by up to 6 months in prison and a $500 fine for first-time offenders, and up to a year in prison and a $1,000 fine for repeat offenders.
Gaitan found that Missouri failed to show that the protest restrictions served a significant government interest, nor did they show that the restrictions were narrowly tailored to prevent the harm of interruptions of funeral services.
“Although plaintiff’s speech may be repugnant to listeners, the court finds that, at a minimum, some of plaintiff’s speech is entitled to constitutional protection sufficient for plaintiff to maintain her constitutional claims,” Gaitan wrote.
Koster said he would appeal.
Numerous states have passed similar laws. Westboro members claim they have staged more than 42,000 protests, including 500 outside of funerals.
A Baltimore jury awarded the father of a Marine killed in Iraq $5 million for emotional distress and invasion of privacy after Westboro members protested outside of his son’s funeral. An appeals court threw out the verdict, but the U.S. Supreme Court will consider the case this fall.
Here is an excerpt from Gaitan’s ruling: “Since approximately 1993, Plaintiff and other members of WBC have picketed and protested near funerals of gay persons, persons who died from AIDS, persons whose lifestyles they believed to be sinful but are touted as heroic upon their death, and persons whose actions while alive had supported homosexuality. Plaintiff believes that the public platform of funerals is the only place where her religious message can be delivered in a timely and relevant manner to a certain audience. Plaintiff believes she is also compelled to warn society of God’s wrath.
“In 2005, Plaintiff and other members of WBC began picketing near the funerals of American soldiers. Plaintiff indicates that the pickets near funerals advance church members’ message of God’s hatred of America for its tolerance of homosexuality and other alleged evils. The signs carried by Plaintiff and other church members express messages such as ‘God Hates Fags,’ ‘Divorce Plus Remarriage Equals Adultery; God Hates Adultery,’ ‘God Hates the USA,’ ‘America is Doomed,’ ‘Thank God for Dead Soldiers,’ ‘God is America’s Terror,’ ‘Priests Rape Boys,’ ‘Fags Doom Nations,’ and ‘9- 11: Gift From God.’ Plaintiff indicates that picketing funerals is integral because it ‘connect[s] that dot from the disobedience and rebellion to the outcome, the consequence of it[.]'”