Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Fed Judge Says Laws Prohibiting Demonstrations at Funerals are Unconstitutional

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — A federal judge ruled Monday that Missouri laws restricting protests near funerals are unconstitutional.

Missouri legislators passed two laws in 2006 in response to protests at soldiers’ funerals by members of Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan. The church contends soldiers’ deaths are God’s punishment on the U.S. for tolerating homosexuality.

U.S. District Judge Fernando Gaitan on Monday ruled that the Missouri law violates the right of free speech guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

The primary law had barred protests near any funeral, procession or memorial service from an hour before until an hour after the service. The secondary measure specifically stated protesters needed to stay back at least 300 feet. Both provisions levied the same penalty: up to six months in jail and a $500 fine for a first offense and up to one year in jail and a $1,000 fine for repeat offenders.

Gaitan’s ruling affected both laws. State lawmakers said they approved two laws so there was a fallback position in case one was challenged in court.
Numerous states have passed laws restricting protests at funerals, and some have been challenged. Missouri’s law was sponsored by two St. Joseph lawmakers after members of the Kansas church protested outside the 2005 funeral of a soldier from their legislative district.

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