ST. LOUIS — Missouri's new law that criminalizes disturbing a worship service is overly broad and vague, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union argued Tuesday.
At issue is a law that took effect last month making it a misdemeanor to intentionally disturb or interrupt a "house of worship" with profane language, rude or indecent behavior or noise that breaks the solemnity of the service. Violators could face up to six months in jail and a $500 fine. Repeat offenders could get up to five years in prison.
The ACLU, representing two individuals and two groups that often picket outside of churches over allegations of sexual abuse of children by clergy, is seeking a preliminary injunction to block the law. U.S. District Judge E. Richard Webber heard the case in St. Louis, but it wasn't clear when he would issue a ruling.
ACLU attorney Anthony Rothert and the attorney for the state, Andy Hirth, said the issue was not disruption inside a church, synagogue, mosque or other place of worship. Both agreed intentionally disrupting a service from the inside would merit a crime.
"The First Amendment is not a free pass to say or do what anyone pleases," Hirth said.
But Rothert said the Missouri law is written so broadly that it could apply to protesters on the outside like members of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, one of the plaintiffs in the case.
Rothert noted that SNAP members often hand out leaflets, march with signs and talk to parishioners outside of churches where alleged sexual abuse by clergy has occurred. He said their material could be interpreted by some as disturbing and disruptive, potentially leading to arrests.
"A sign in the background, even a large one — the parishioner is not forced to look at that sign," he said.
Rothert also wondered about religious services in non-traditional settings. For example, some startup churches rent public schools on Sundays. Some religious groups host picnics in public parks and hold services during the picnic. Many public places have chapels. "There's one at the airport," Rothert said.
Hirth said, "We're not talking about impromptu services. I don't think if I stop on the street and pray that makes it a religious service."
The suit filed in August, days before the measure became law, claims it violates due process and free-speech rights guaranteed by the U.S. and Missouri constitutions.
Missouri Senate President Pro Tem Rob Mayer, R-Dexter, sponsored the law, citing isolated incidents around the country of people disturbing worship services. He did not cite any particular examples. He said the disruptive protests have occurred at mosques and synagogues as well as at churches.
The National Criminal Justice Reference Service said several states have similar laws, including California.
Mayer said the bill is aimed only at those who try to be disruptive, not at worshippers who enthusiastically shout "Amen" or "Hallelujah" during services.