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. Fnord-a-saurus Rex

    Perhaps God is punishing the US, not for homosexuality, but for the sin of killing innocent people for political and financial gains.

    These protestors should be ashamed of themselves. I beleive in the right to free speach for everybody including all the stupid, bigots, and plain wacko's out there, put these people should let the families mourn in peace.

    Also, I was not aware that God was into preaching any kind of hatred.
    These are the people that give Christians a bad name.

    June 29, 2009 01:45 pm at 1:45 pm |
  2. Chris

    It is interesting that a church would be doing this at funerals. It just goes to show that Satan comes in all forms. Westboro Baptist Church is a church of the Devil and anyone who doesn’t believe that need to take the bible out and read it. Satan comes in all forms and the best form is to pretend he is on the side of God.

    June 29, 2009 01:56 pm at 1:56 pm |
  3. Dave

    To violate someone's funeral, to preach their own agenda, is hardly following God's message of "Love one another as I have loved you." It is hardly showing "Love thy neighbor as thyself." It doesn't follow the admonition to "Judge not, lest ye be judged."

    It is quite interesting that a ceremony designed to send one off to meet one's maker would be the target of a supposed preacher of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

    It is pure hypocrisy to insult the family and the service member, who gave their life for their country, and their countrymen.

    Just remember that what ye sow, so shall ye reap.

    June 29, 2009 01:56 pm at 1:56 pm |
  4. The Jellyman

    Doctors shot to death in churches, grieving families harassed at funerals. Where will we find peace?

    June 29, 2009 01:57 pm at 1:57 pm |
  5. disgusted Kansan

    Please don't judge all Kansans by the actions of Fred Phelps. This man is a disgusting human being. Whether or not people support the war, no family deserves to have his group picketing the funeral of a loved one who gave their life for our country! I live in Kansas and will never condone his behavior.

    June 29, 2009 02:00 pm at 2:00 pm |
  6. mark

    Thanks for nothing U.S. Supreme Court!

    June 29, 2009 02:03 pm at 2:03 pm |
  7. Claudia in Houson

    Just another pastor gone wild.

    June 29, 2009 02:04 pm at 2:04 pm |
  8. Lousie

    Looks like Sarah Palin's friend Fred Phelps has a temporary victory.

    June 29, 2009 02:04 pm at 2:04 pm |
  9. jwn in south carolina

    I have seen these people in action at a soldier's funeral in a small, rural Georgia community. They are beyond awful. The devil is alive and well and resides within these "religious" nuts.

    They hold up salacious signs and scream slurs at sorrowful family and friends. Surely there must be a special place for the likes of these less than human beings.

    June 29, 2009 02:04 pm at 2:04 pm |
  10. Ken in NC

    For them to protest at the funeral of a soldier is hateful. That soldier gave his life following the orders of his superiors. I have no problem with this as it is a part of how we work as a team. Now if they want to take issue with how a soldier serves then they need to take it to the leaders. I also feel that protesting or being open in the delivery of offensive messages at the funeral of anyone, especially a fallen soldier could result in injury to protesters.

    June 29, 2009 02:06 pm at 2:06 pm |
  11. Carol

    They've protested here. An absolutely disgusting, sickening and un-christian display on top of being unpatriotic.

    Our fallen soldiers deserve the utmost respect and protesting, let alone the way these fanatics did made me sick to my stomach.

    June 29, 2009 02:09 pm at 2:09 pm |
  12. Randolph Carter

    I suppose they have the right. That's really tasteless, though. Think of the poor soldier's family having to deal with that. Besides, I thought Neocons were the punishment for our collective sins. Have a nice day!

    June 29, 2009 02:09 pm at 2:09 pm |
  13. Derrick

    These people at Westboro Baptist disgust me. Around 100 psycotic people running their mouths about parts of the Bible that they don't even understand. And then to bring disgrace upon themselves at these funerals. Haven't they ever read in the Bible "Those that judge will be judged."? I believe they need to back off before some private citizens one day decide to take action into their own hands.

    June 29, 2009 02:10 pm at 2:10 pm |
  14. Jason

    Do they actually ever hear a case? Seems like all I see in the news are rejections to hear cases from the Supreme Court.

    June 29, 2009 02:10 pm at 2:10 pm |
  15. Ed Tallahassee FL

    Fred Phelps has the right to protest no matter how much we may disagree with him.

    How many protesters will show-up at his funeral?

    June 29, 2009 02:20 pm at 2:20 pm |
  16. Robert in CT

    As a Christian, I just want to apologize to all those involved in this disgusting situation that have been hurt by Phelps and his followers. Their actions do not in any way resemble what Christ taught, and I'm ashamed that my faith has to be associated with hateful people like this. I really hope that the impact of these hate-mongers is as limited as possible.

    June 29, 2009 02:20 pm at 2:20 pm |
  17. New Day

    its too bad how some people twist religion around. No religion advocates these people's views.

    June 29, 2009 02:22 pm at 2:22 pm |
  18. Mark S.

    These people are vile and an insult to the very Christian myths they espouse.

    June 29, 2009 02:22 pm at 2:22 pm |
  19. Iraq Veteran


    I did two tours in the theatre and will take great pleasure in rendering as many of these freaks unconsious as humanly possible.

    June 29, 2009 02:27 pm at 2:27 pm |
  20. Alex in Wisconsin

    I find it more likely that God would be punishing us for false prophets spreading hate and disrespect for fellow human beings than for homosexuality in the US only, nevermind the homosexuality in the rest of the world. But that's a lowly human's opinion on the matter.

    God has never been a fan of those who pretend to be God and for those who claim to speak for God, especially when the message being spread is directly opposed to the message of Jesus.

    June 29, 2009 02:29 pm at 2:29 pm |
  21. Alex in Wisconsin

    I find it more likely that God would be punishing us for false prophets spreading hate and disrespect for fellow human beings than for homosexuality in the US only, nevermind the homosexuality in the rest of the world. But that's a lowly human's opinion on the matter.

    God has never been a fan of those who pretend to be God and for those who claim to speak for God, especially when the message being spread is directly opposed to the message of Jesus. But thats just what the Bible tells me

    June 29, 2009 02:30 pm at 2:30 pm |
  22. Tomas E

    Justice 0, Psycho Bible Beating GOP = 1

    June 29, 2009 02:31 pm at 2:31 pm |
  23. Henry

    This is sooooo sad. It is obvious that these people are deranged as are the masters that control them.

    Isn't it ironic, don't you think, that the religious extremists so tightly associated with the Republicans, are attacking the same brave Soldiers that have been sadly used as props by the same Repugicans?

    Soldiers should NEVER be used by anyone for political or religious gain. Shame on you Republican party. Being a conservative is great but being a Republican is shameful.

    June 29, 2009 02:34 pm at 2:34 pm |
  24. ron

    More not-so-hilarious hijinx from the republican base. Maybe the GOP should start to re-think who their "base" truly is...

    My (straight) family had a great time Sunday morning at the Seattle (Gay) Pride parade. It felt great to instill in my children a true American family value: tolerance.

    June 29, 2009 02:36 pm at 2:36 pm |
  25. Anonymous

    These nuts protested in our town because we had an openly gay mayor. We countered their shouting by ringing the church bells and all business showed signs declaring that "Hate is not a Plattsburgh value," Believe me when those bells ring you can't hear anything within a mile. They got t'd off after a day of this and went to picket Canada because Canada had just passed a gay marriage law. Bottom line..Canada didn't want them either.

    June 29, 2009 02:37 pm at 2:37 pm |
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