June 29th, 2009
12:55 PM ET
13 years ago

Justices refuse to hear case over protests at soldier funerals

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.

Filed under: Supreme Court
soundoff (59 Responses)
  1. Deborah/Kansas City

    Does free speech mean you get to choose where you speak? If I try to protest at a church during the service, or in a library where others are studying; am I guaranteed that? I understand that even those that preach hate and murder are allowed to be offensive; but they should not be able to interfere with other people's rights, to have a dignified final ceremony for thier lost loved one.

    June 29, 2009 02:38 pm at 2:38 pm |
  2. mrkusn

    The Westboro Baptist Church teaches and models an extreme aberrant form of Christianity that is outside even mainstream fundamentalism. The Founder of Christianity did not ever endorse such behavior. This church does not exist to care for souls but instead to smash them. WBC's mission statement through their actions is heretical at best and blasphemous in the worst way.

    June 29, 2009 02:38 pm at 2:38 pm |
  3. Tony

    This "Church" is not a Church. It is a hate filled group of people who have taken the Bible way out of context. All you have to do is go the terrible website and read for yourself.

    I think there may be a special place for the Phelps

    June 29, 2009 02:42 pm at 2:42 pm |
  4. Walter Gladney

    I think that Mr Phelps should think about the many service men and women who have given the ultimate sacrafice and thank them for his right to free speach. He forgets that we are to walk uprightly among man and god that we are to square ourselveses up on the square of morality and to walk the level of equality which will prepair ourselves for that house not made by hands but eternal in heaven. He hasn't earn the right to judge

    June 29, 2009 02:45 pm at 2:45 pm |
  5. Hate in the Name of God

    Shameful hate from the evangelical fringe. Ive seen these people on new shows before. What pigs.
    God doesnt hate
    Its the most direspectful and inhuman right wing fringe hate tactic I have ever seen.
    ENjoy your 1st ammendment rights that the soldiers died to defend

    June 29, 2009 02:47 pm at 2:47 pm |
  6. What?

    "The HATRED of God"

    Wow what a fabulous religion!

    June 29, 2009 02:48 pm at 2:48 pm |
  7. Moderate Democrat

    Fair ruling.

    I detest the people that take this opportunity, the death of one of our children, to link it to such ridiculous claims. I guess God made Sanford have an affair as well, to punish us because of homosexuals. Thank goodness we can say "God made me sin" as an excuse to be a sleaze bag.

    But at the end of the tunnel, is our constitution, and Freedom of Speech is undeniable. Now if they would take another look at Right to Privacy vs the Patriot Act, we might remain consistant with our constitution.

    June 29, 2009 02:49 pm at 2:49 pm |
  8. gene

    It is true the God I serve loves
    everyone. He said Thou should not kill. As a christian one should be a PEASE MAKER. CHRISTIANS should not judge, spread Hate.

    I believe in free speech, but I believe a TRUE christian does not say or believe what Fred Phelps is teaching his group.

    He is hurting people who have lost loved ones and Americans who have been wounded in this unnecessary war.

    May the God of Abraham, Jacob, and Issac change this mans hart.

    June 29, 2009 02:49 pm at 2:49 pm |
  9. Roofin Reality, Houston, Tx.

    IRonic that they protest at a solider's funeral, the same soldier who dies for their right to shout at the funeral.
    Question is – why protest at the soldeir's funeral? WIth Don't Ask, Don't Tell, they're likely not gay.
    Just goes to show you that sometimes we have too much time on hand. Epsecially my friends in the puplit.

    June 29, 2009 02:50 pm at 2:50 pm |
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