JEFFERSON CITY, Missouri - Frustrated by a federal court ruling that tossed out Missouri's
ban on protesting near funerals, lawmakers are promising a new
effort to shield mourning families from demonstrators.
This time legislators pledge a different approach that helps
balance the free speech rights of protesters with the privacy
concerns of families attending a funeral. But the goal remains
largely the same: Keep demonstrators and mourners as far apart as
The legislation targets members of the Topeka, Kan.-based
Westboro Baptist Church, who hold funeral demonstrations across the
country while contending the deaths are God's punishment for the
nation's tolerance of homosexuality. Many of the protests have been
at funerals for members of the military.
"We've got these nuts from Kansas that keep coming," said
sponsoring Sen. Kevin Engler, a Republican from Farmington in St.
Francois County. "We're coming up with a way to fix this that will
hold up in court, and we can stop this just deplorable protesting
at funerals for our fallen heroes,"
Republican House Speaker Steven Tilley, who is from nearby
Perryville, called the protests "despicable." Tilley said he is
interested in limiting demonstrations out of sense of human
"I personally can't understand people and what they're thinking
to go to someone's funeral and protest. . We need to protect their
freedom of speech, but maybe we need to institute requirements that
move them farther away from the funeral," Tilley said.
In 2006, lawmakers tried to do that. They approved a law that
banned picketing and protests in front of or near a funeral from
one hour before to one hour after the service. Because of concerns
about legal challenges, they also passed another law creating a
300-foot buffer zone between funerals and demonstrations that was
designed to take effect if the primary law were declared
U.S. District Judge Fernando Gaitan last August declared both
Gaitan wrote that he was sympathetic to the argument that people
attending a funeral deserve some protection, but noted a federal
appeals court previously had rejected that argument. Gaitan
concluded Missouri had not demonstrated that the protest
restrictions served a significant government interest and that they
were narrowly tailored.
The Missouri attorney general's office is appealing the
decision. But state lawmakers also are ready to try again with a
One proposal this year would bar protest activities that disrupt
a funeral, but does not try to restrict behavior around
processions. It states the rules are necessary to respect the
privacy of grieving family members. Protests would be barred from
one hour before to one hour after the funeral. Another idea would
pick from portions of a St. Charles County ordinance.
However, the St. Charles County ordinance, which is based on a
Nebraska law, also has been challenged. A hearing in that case was
Tony Rothert -- an attorney for the American Civil Liberties
Union which has challenged many of the Missouri funeral
restrictions on behalf of the Kansas church -- said the government
cannot create restrictions just because it does not like what
people are saying. In other words, a demonstration cannot be
treated differently based on whether it is thanking people for
their service or expressing thanks for their death.
"What's happening at these protests is covered by the First
Amendment. I don't know of a constitutional way to prevent it from
happening," he said.
That has not stopped state and local officials from trying.
Several Missouri communities have attempted to enact local
In November, a consent agreement prevented an eastern Missouri
sheriff from enforcing state laws banning flag desecration and
funeral protests. The St. Francois County sheriff had promised to
enforce the laws if church members protested in his area. An
attorney for the sheriff said they agreed to the consent judgment
because of other court cases.
Other states have approved their own funeral protest
The Arizona Legislature unanimously passed such a law after
Westboro church members announced plans to picket at the funerals
of some killed in this month's shooting in Tucson, Ariz. The
Arizona law is modeled after an Ohio measure upheld by a federal
The church agreed to cancel the protests in exchange for airtime
on a nationally syndicated radio show and programs in Canada and
The U.S. Supreme Court, meanwhile, considered an appeal by the
father of a Marine killed in Iraq to reinstate a $5 million verdict
against protesters who picketed outside his son's funeral in
Maryland. A federal appeals court had thrown out the verdict.
Westboro Baptist Church, in court documents, has estimated that
it has held more than 42,000 pickets, including more than 500 at
That has given Missouri lawmakers a reason to search for a way
to stop the picketing -- even while acknowledging the demonstrators
have a right to speak.
"We have to find a way to let them have their freedom of speech
but not in such a provocative way that it would set off a tinder
box," Engler said.