On Tuesday, a federal appeals court ruled that a suburb of St. Louis is permitted to enforce a funeral protest ordinance that prevents picketing by an anti-gay church from Kansas. The ruling, issued by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, reversed a ruling by a panel of three judges from the same court.
The ruling issued last year prevented the town of Manchester, Missouri from enforcing its law that was created in response to activities by members of the Westboro Baptist Church, which is based in Topeka, Kansas. Shirley Phelps-Roper, a member of Westboro Baptist Church and the daughter of pastor Fred Phelps, filed a lawsuit that claimed the ordinance in Manchester violated the right to free speech in the First Amendment.
Church members protest at the funerals of soldiers while holding signs that say “Thank God for dead soldiers” and “Thank God for 9/11.” The church claims that the soldiers’ deaths are punishment from God for immorality and tolerance of abortion and homosexuality in the United States.
The ordinance in Manchester permits protests but limits the activities that can take place. One of the limitations is that the protestors are not allowed to be within 300 feet of a funeral or a burial service while it is taking place and for one hour prior to it or one hour after it concludes. In the ruling, Eighth Circuit Judge Diana Murphy wrote that the ordinance “survives First Amendment scrutiny because it serves a significant government interest, it is narrowly tailored, and it leaves open ample alternative channels for communication.”
In the concurring opinion, Judge Lavenski Smith agreed but also wrote that the appeals court “is extending the circumference of what this circuit has previously found constitutes a significant government interest.”
Patrick Gunn, the City Attorney for Manchester, said that the law was created to mimic a law in Ohio that was upheld by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. “We were confident that eventually our ordinance was not in any way unconstitutional or overimposing on a person’s right to exercise free speech,” Gunn said.
An attorney from the American Civil Liberties Union, Tony Rothert, represented Phelps-Roper and said that a decision for an appeal has yet to be made. “We think it’s a slippery slope not justified by the First Amendment or Supreme Court precedent,” Rothert said. “Ultimately that’s probably an issue for the Supreme Court to decide.”
The ordinance in Manchester was created in 2007 and members of Westboro have yet to protest a burial or funeral in the town. A spokesman for Westboro Baptist Church, Steve Drain, said, “It won’t have any impact,” Drain said. “We’re not interested in breaking any laws, we’re interested in preaching the word of God to a doomed nation.”