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Judge upholds Mo. law limiting time, distance of funeral protests

Wednesday, March 12, 2014
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JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — A federal judge has upheld a Missouri law requiring protesters to stay at least a football-field length away from funeral sites, beginning an hour before they start until an hour after the services end.

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The ruling by U.S. District Judge Fernando Gaitan Jr. caps a nearly eight-year legal fight over Missouri’s funeral protest restrictions that were prompted after members of the Topeka, Kan.-based Westboro Baptist protested at the funeral of a Missouri solider who had been killed in Iraq.

Westboro, home of the anti-gay extremists behind the “Gods Hate Fags” and “God hates the World” fundamentalist movement, conducts protests at funerals to highlight its belief that God is punishing the U.S. for its acceptance of homosexuality, regardless of whether the deceased person was gay.

Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster said the law is now in effect.

“No parent who has lost a child should be confronted by the hate and intolerance of strangers, and today’s ruling means parents and other loved ones will have a protective boundary from protesters,” Koster said Tuesday in a written statement.

After Westboro members protested at a 2005 funeral in Missouri, the state Legislature responded in 2006 by passing a general prohibition against protests and pickets near funerals from one hour before they start until an hour after they end. Concerned about potential legal challenges, Missouri lawmakers a few months later passed a second law containing a specific 300-foot buffer zone but included wording making it effective only if the more general prohibition was invalidated in court.

Both laws contained the same penalty for protesters — up to six months in jail and a $500 fine for a first offense, and up to one year in jail and a $1,000 fine for repeat offenders.

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Westboro had argued that the one-hour restriction associated with the 300-foot buffer was unconstitutionally vague because it’s difficult to know exactly when funerals begin. But Gaitan rejected that assertion, saying there was no evidence that funerals frequently start earlier than their published times.

Rothert said Westboro members can adjust to the Missouri law by keeping their distance from funeral sites long before the one-hour requirement kicks in.

Westboro Baptist Church is not affiliated with the Baptist denomination or any other Baptist church. According to news reports, almost all of its members — fewer than 100 — are related to founder Fred Phelps either by blood or marriage.

The group came into the national spotlight in 1998, when it picketed at the funeral of Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old gay man who was brutally attacked on the night of October 6, 1998, then tied to a fence and left to die.

Associated Press contributed to this report.

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