By Garance Burke
Sunday, July 23, 2006
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- A Kansas church group that protests at military funerals nationwide filed suit in federal court, saying a Missouri law banning such picketing infringes on religious freedom and free speech.
The American Civil Liberties Union filed the lawsuit Friday in the U.S. District Court in Jefferson City, Mo., on behalf of the fundamentalist Westboro Baptist Church, which has outraged mourning communities by picketing service members' funerals with signs condemning homosexuality.
The church and the Rev. Fred Phelps say God is allowing troops, coal miners and others to be killed because the United States tolerates gay men and lesbians.
Missouri lawmakers were spurred to action after members of the church protested in St. Joseph, Mo., last August at the funeral of Army Spec. Edward L. Myers.
The law bans picketing and protests "in front of or about" any location where a funeral is held, from an hour before it begins until an hour after it ends. Offenders can face fines and jail time.
A number of other state laws and a federal law, signed in May by President Bush, bar such protests within a certain distance of a cemetery or funeral.
In the lawsuit, the ACLU says the Missouri law tries to limit protesters' free speech based on the content of their message. It is asking the court to declare the ban unconstitutional and to issue an injunction to keep it from being enforced, which would allow the group to resume picketing.
"I told the nation, as each state went after these laws, that if the day came that they got in our way, that we would sue them," said Phelps's daughter Shirley L. Phelps-Roper, a spokeswoman for the church in Topeka, Kan. "At this hour, the wrath of God is pouring out on this country."
Scott Holste, a spokesman for Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon, said, "We're not going to acquiesce to anything that they're asking for in this lawsuit."
The suit names Nixon, Gov. Matt Blunt (R) and others as defendants.