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. Leo

    There better watch out someone doesn't get Perezed Hiltoned at afuneral !!!

    June 29, 2009 12:59 pm at 12:59 pm |
  2. Linda from Minnesota

    What is wrong with people? My gosh, these bible thumpers types are the same ones who support former President Bush who started the war in Iraq. Do they not see the irony here?

    June 29, 2009 01:00 pm at 1:00 pm |
  3. Jeff of Peoria

    Is this where Sotomeyer will get to use her JUDGEMENT?? If so I hope she's there to keep these lunatics away from heroes. I'm a free speech advocate but there are just some venues that should be resticted.

    June 29, 2009 01:05 pm at 1:05 pm |
  4. inofritzn

    way to be worst kind of Americans westboro baptist church. Every time I hear of these freaks I get sick to the stomach. I wonder how "pastor" fred phelps would feel if we protested one of his family members death, and stating it was god punishing him for whatever

    June 29, 2009 01:09 pm at 1:09 pm |
  5. Joel Payne

    looks like maybe certain folks need to hire Blakewater teams to help them morn...

    June 29, 2009 01:09 pm at 1:09 pm |
  6. Chris in NC

    This is pretty twisted...the public isn't allowed even a glimpse our fallen soldiers coming home in flag-draped caskets, meanwhile, these sick twisted religious fanatics are allowed to desecrate their memory and harass grieving friends and family. What's the world coming to...

    June 29, 2009 01:10 pm at 1:10 pm |
  7. Hugo

    Can't we beat on them just a little, pleeeeeeeeeeeeease? You know they want it, we could tell them God told us to do it.

    June 29, 2009 01:11 pm at 1:11 pm |
  8. Anonymous

    The idea that God hates anyone is blasphemy. This is religious harassment, it's evil, wrong and immoral. It's just sickening that this sort of thing is protected under the guise of "free speech" Phelps and his sad, disgusting entourage have a web site, they have the right to protest on street corners, they have no right to intrude on the sorrow of families of heroes at such a tender moment. If it was anyone but these pretenders to Christianity protesting you better believe that the Court would have heard this in a heartbeat. Nauseating.

    June 29, 2009 01:13 pm at 1:13 pm |
  9. Nero

    As far as I know the dead cant hear a thing and the living cant see Rome burning as they argue about who set the fire.Who was is that said"let the dead bury the dead"?

    June 29, 2009 01:13 pm at 1:13 pm |
  10. lovable liberal

    The Phelpses would be delighted to sue anyone who would beat the crap out of them. They do this for money, nothing else.

    June 29, 2009 01:14 pm at 1:14 pm |
  11. hockeybear

    As much as I hate the message, I believe they do have a right to protest. The First Amendment applies to everyone, even those that preach hate.

    June 29, 2009 01:16 pm at 1:16 pm |
  12. Judy Who

    Is it free speech if your intention is to disrupt a private family even such as a funeral? May well be, but it's a rather disgusting and disrespectful way to get your views across. The Phelps family and their church have the right to their individual views, though they hardly appear to be following the examples of Jesus Christ.

    June 29, 2009 01:16 pm at 1:16 pm |
  13. Marc

    Even a bunch of wackos had the right to express themselves, but the deceased also had the right to have their burial respected, THEY EARNED IT, even if it was not necessary to earn (its basic sociability, respect to be respected).
    But WHOM in this world is not hated by the Westboro Baptist Church? Besides themselves, whom has earned their respect?

    June 29, 2009 01:21 pm at 1:21 pm |
  14. yeah right...

    Wait till they start protesting at funerals of members of this church and thier families, and their friends and neighbors. If it legal for them to do it then it's legal for everyone to do it. Maybe if there are enough outrageous protest then people will realise that by allowing them their freedon, you are impinging on the freedom of those who mourn the passing of their loved ones. Someone should organise a FSM protest outside their church and their funerals etc.

    June 29, 2009 01:22 pm at 1:22 pm |
  15. Boston guy

    I realize that this group is to the extreme but it just goes to show how much hate these Conservative and Christian groups have towards anyone who doesn't believe just like them. It's a shame that they do not practice what they preach. It always seems that the standards and values they push on everyone aren't they ones they have to follow.

    June 29, 2009 01:29 pm at 1:29 pm |
  16. Mark

    If Phelps and his "family" show up in Northern Michigan at a veteran funeral and pull their garbage out, there will more then likely be more funerals soon to come.

    June 29, 2009 01:29 pm at 1:29 pm |
  17. Too True For You

    I am surprised the right-wing fundamentalists have not nominated him for office in recognition of his staunch advocacy of family values.

    June 29, 2009 01:29 pm at 1:29 pm |
  18. Wise AZ

    I wish the Westboro Baptist Church members, especially Shirley – all the worst in the after life. They are beyond evil.

    June 29, 2009 01:30 pm at 1:30 pm |
  19. Shucks

    These people are the sickest of the sick. Mental illness and incest are rampant amoung this group. I would gladly go to jail to break up one of their protests.

    June 29, 2009 01:32 pm at 1:32 pm |
  20. Joe in Austin

    At first glance, this is a horrible ruling, but really it is just the process going through its paces.

    The Phelps-Roper "family" sounds more like the Koresh family to me.

    June 29, 2009 01:34 pm at 1:34 pm |
  21. Kansan

    I waiting for some shell-shocked, grief stricken marines to finally lose it and gun down these pathetic excuses for human beings. Fred Phelps an his band of brainwashed gimps don't deserve to have rights of any kind..they deserved to be locked up in a mental home for some serious therapy.

    June 29, 2009 01:34 pm at 1:34 pm |
  22. Larry

    Homophobia at it's most disgusting level ...

    Hey Phelps ...

    Pull your head out of your as-

    Leave the families to morn their dead children in peace

    And you call yourself a man of God

    No real God, if there was such a thing, would put up with the likes of someone as hateful as you

    June 29, 2009 01:34 pm at 1:34 pm |
  23. Lowell

    If Bush and company could create 'free speech zones' for protesters whenever Bush spoke and place them 3 miles away from wherever it was Bush was at the time, then why can't mourners at a funeral have the same right? Why can't the protesters be kept OUT of the cemetery during a service?

    What Phelps and his family/congregation (no distinction on those two adjectives) do is heartless and criminal. Maybe it's not against the law, but that doesn't mean what they're doing is right. I've listened to them speak on the radio a few times, and I just have to wonder how America could ever produce individuals like them. Where in our gene pool does DNA like that congregate and how can it be removed so more Phelps-like creatures aren't reproduced?

    June 29, 2009 01:37 pm at 1:37 pm |
  24. Melissa

    I'm pretty disgusted with the lawmakers in this country.

    June 29, 2009 01:39 pm at 1:39 pm |
  25. Michelle

    I don't ordinarily wish for human beings to spontaneously combust.

    I'll make an exception for the WBC clan.

    June 29, 2009 01:43 pm at 1:43 pm |
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