JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — A federal judge ruled yesterday that Missouri laws restricting protests near funerals are unconstitutional.
Missouri legislators passed two laws in 2006 in response to protests at service members’ funerals by members of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan. The church contends that the deaths are God’s punishment for the United States tolerating homosexuality.
US District Judge Fernando Gaitan ruled the laws violate the right of free speech guaranteed by the US Constitution.
The primary state 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 that protesters must 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 concluded that Missouri officials did not demonstrate that the restrictions served a significant government interest nor that they had been narrowly tailored to prevent the harm of interruptions of funeral services. The judge said he was sympathetic to the argument that those attending a funeral deserve some protection but added that a federal appeals court had previously rejected that argument.
The lawsuit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union for a Westboro church member.