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Court Upholds Version Of Mo. Funeral Protest Law

Shirley Phelps-Roper, a member of Westboro Baptist Church, during a protest.
(via Flickr/k763)
Shirley Phelps-Roper, a member of Westboro Baptist Church, during a protest.

A federal appeals court has ruled that with some changes, a version of a Missouri law restricting protests near funerals does not violate a Kansas-based group's right to free speech.

Here's the quick version of today's ruling:

  1. There are two versions of the law. One sets a 300-foot buffer zone, one does not. Both also apply to processions.
  2. The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals rules that both versions are over-broad because they apply to processions.
  3. However, the word "procession" can be removed from the version of the law that sets a 300-foot buffer, which does not violate free speech rights. (See this ruling from the court.)
  4. But even though the law is okay on free speech grounds, a federal judge needs to consider it on free expression of religious grounds.

The case started back in 2006, when the Westboro Baptist Church picketed at the funeral of an Army specialist from Missouri. The original version, approved in October of that year and named for that late soldier,  simply restricted protest or picketing activities between one hour before and one hour after a funeral, no matter where they set up. Lawmakers also approved a second version that established  a 300-foot buffer zone. Both included processions as part of the funeral.

A member of the WBC, Shirley Phelps-Roper, sued, saying the first version unfairly restricted her right to free speech because it did not establish a buffer zone, and because it applied to processions. A panel of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down that first version in 2008. In a ruling today, a second panel of the court agreed the original version was too broad, but said the second version would be okay if the word "procession" was removed.

However, the appeals court also kicked the later version of the law back to a federal judge to determine whether the laws violate the WBC's right to the free exercise of religion.

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.