Missouri lawmakers seek to silence funeral protests

Tuesday, February 8, 2011 | 5:44 p.m. CST; updated 9:06 a.m. CST, Thursday, March 3, 2011

JEFFERSON CITY — Months after Missouri's restrictions on protesting at funerals were declared to be unconstitutional, state House members on Tuesday proposed trying again to enact limits for pickets around the ceremonies.

Sponsoring Rep. Ward Franz, R-West Plains, said that people should be able to mourn without harassment from protesters and that it was disappointing a law was needed.

As they did the last time the state passed protesting restrictions, state lawmakers are targeting members of the Topeka, Kan.-based Westboro Baptist Church, who hold funeral demonstrations across the country while contending the deaths are God's punishment for the nation's tolerance of homosexuality. Many of the protests have been at funerals for members of the military.

Under Franz's bill, it would be a misdemeanor to protest within 300 feet of a cemetery, mortuary, church or other house of worship from one hour before a funeral to two hours after the ceremony. The legislation would not prohibit protests along funeral processions on public streets. Violators would face up to six months in jail.

The new legislation is a little different from the two Missouri laws restricting funeral protests that were passed in 2006 and later declared unconstitutional by a federal judge.

In 2006, lawmakers approved a law that banned picketing and protests in front of or near a funeral from one hour before to one hour after the service. Because of concerns about legal challenges, legislators also passed another law creating a 300-foot buffer zone between funerals and demonstrations that was designed to take effect if the primary law was declared unconstitutional. Both included a ban on picketing near funeral processions.

U.S. District Judge Fernando Gaitan declared both 2006 laws unconstitutional last August. Gaitan wrote he was sympathetic to the argument that people attending a funeral deserve some protection but noted a federal appeals court previously rejected that argument. Gaitan concluded Missouri had neither demonstrated that the protest restrictions served a significant government interest nor that they were narrowly tailored.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri, which has represented Westboro Baptist Church in challenges to funeral protest restrictions, said the most recent Missouri proposal also prompts concerns about free speech rights.

But several lawmakers said there are already restrictions on speech rights, such as yelling "fire" in a theater or "bomb" on an airplane. They said they were concerned about abuses of speech rights.

"It feels like common sense says you should show respect for the family and the deceased," said Rep. Gary Cross, R-Lee's Summit.

The Westboro group visited Columbia three times in 2009. In May, the group protested the Rev. Dick Blount's comments on acceptance of homosexuality at a Columbia City Council meeting. Blount is a retired United Methodist minister.

Members returned in October to picket "The Laramie Project," a play depicting the death of Matthew Shepard, a gay man beaten to death in 1998 in Laramie, Wyo. Westboro Baptist Church made one more trip to Columbia in December to declare that a quadruple homicide of four women was God's punishment for the city's stance on homosexuality.


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