WASHINGTON (CNN) – A small Kansas church that has gained nationwide attention for protesting loudly at funerals of U.S. service members killed in overseas conflicts received a temporary victory from the Supreme Court over their free speech rights.
The justices Monday rejected an appeal from Missouri officials over their efforts to keep members of the Topeka-based Westboro Baptist Church from demonstrating at least 300 feet from memorial services and burials.
The church, led by pastor Fred Phelps, believes God is punishing the United States for "the sin of homosexuality," through events including soldiers' deaths. Members have traveled the country, shouting at grieving family members at funerals and displaying such signs as "Thank God for Dead Soldiers," "God Blew Up the Troops" and "AIDS Cures Fags."
A lower court had granted an injunction blocking enforcement of the law until it could be challenged.
Phelps, his daughter Shirley Phelps-Roper and other church members had protested near the August 2005 funeral of Army Spc. Edward Lee Myers in St. Joseph, Missouri. The married Army Airborne Ranger died while on patrol in Samarra, Iraq, when an improvised explosive device detonated near his Humvee military vehicle. He was 21, and in addition to his wife, Myers leaves behind a daughter. He was later buried at Leavenworth National Cemetery in Kansas.
In response to that protest, Missouri lawmakers passed the "Spc. Edward Lee Myers Law", criminalizing picketing "in front or about" a funeral location or procession.
Phelps-Roper then went to federal court to ask for a preliminary injunction to block enforcement of the statute until its constitutionality could be reviewed. A federal appeals court eventually agreed. That court did not address the broader First Amendment claims, but noted the law was overly intrusive, since it "restricts expressive activity not just within or on the premises of a cemetery of a church, but also on traditional public for a such as the adjacent public streets and sidewalks."
The Supreme Court has never addressed the specific issues of laws designed to protect the "sanctity and dignity of memorial and funeral services," as well as the privacy of family and friends of the deceased. But the high court has recognized the state's interest in protecting those from unwanted protests or communications while in their homes.
The justices were asked to address how far states can go to justify picket-free zones and the use of "floating buffers" to silence or restrict the speech or movements of demonstrators exercising their constitutional rights in a funeral setting. Various jurisdictions across the nation have responded to the protests with varying levels of control over the church protesters.
According to a legal brief it filed with the high court, church members believe it is their duty to protest and picket at certain events, including funerals, to promote their religious message: "That God's promise of love and heaven for those who obey him in this life is counterbalanced by God's wrath and hell for those who do not obey him."
The congregation is made up mostly of Phelps and his family. The pastor has 13 children, and at least 54 grandchildren and 7 great-grandchildren. He described himself as an "old-time" gospel preacher in a CNN interview in 2006, saying, "You can't preach the Bible without preaching the hatred of God."
Missouri officials said the appeals court improperly balanced the free speech rights of both sides in favor of the church.
"Mourners cannot avoid a message that targets funerals without forgoing their right to partake in funeral or burial services, so are appropriately viewed as a captive audience" that is simply unable to shut out the offensive message, said state attorneys.
The case is Nixon (Missouri governor) v. Phelps-Roper (08-1244). It will be argued sometime after October.