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Federal judge protects Mo. ban on funeral protests

WASHINGTON (BP)–A federal judge has turned back an effort by a controversial Kansas church to block enforcement of a Missouri law barring protests at funerals.

The ruling delivered a setback to the efforts of Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., to mount unhindered picketing and protests at military funerals in Missouri. In recent years, the independent Baptist church led by Fred Phelps has sent groups to protest at funerals for U.S. service members killed in Iraq, proclaiming in signs and verbal messages their belief that the deaths are evidence of God’s judgment upon America for condoning homosexuality.

The lawsuit was filed by Shirley Phelps-Roper, a lawyer and daughter of Fred Phelps.

The Missouri law prohibits picketing and protests “in front of or about” a site where a funeral is scheduled, according to The Kansas City Star. The ban extends from an hour before the service begins until an hour after it concludes. Missouri is one of 30 states to adopt such laws, according to the American Center for Law and Justice.

Federal Judge Fernando Gaitan ruled that the lawsuit did not show a probability of succeeding. Gaitan, a judge in the Western District of Missouri, also said the law did not prevent picketers from exercising their free-speech rights at other times and places, The Star reported.

ACLJ Chief Counsel Jay Sekulow said the court decision “is an important step in protecting the privacy of the family and friends of these fallen military heroes who have given their lives in defense of this country.”

The ACLJ said in a September friend-of-the-court brief filed in defense of the Missouri law, “While the ACLJ actively defends the free-speech rights of hundreds of individuals and groups in state and federal courts across the country, the ACLJ is also committed to the basic principle of law that the First Amendment does not give citizens a blank check to say whatever they want, however they want, wherever they want –- especially when the rights of others are violated.”

A federal law barring funeral protests at national cemeteries was enacted last year.

Small groups from Westboro Baptist Church, which is not affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention or other Baptist denomination, have protested a variety of events and organizations they deemed unsatisfactorily opposed to homosexuality, often displaying “God hates fags” posters. The groups frequently are made up largely of members of the family of Fred Phelps, Westboro’s pastor. In a 2003 interview, Phelps said the church sponsors about 40 protests a week and had picketed more than 22,000 times during the previous 12 years.

More recently, Phelps and his followers have protested at soldiers’ funerals across the country, bearing signs with such messages as “Thank God for IEDs” (improvised explosive devices), which have killed a large number of U.S. troops in Iraq. They oppose the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that prevents homosexuals from serving openly but also prohibits the armed services from asking soldiers about their sexual preferences.

Westboro plans to picket the funerals of 15 service members from Feb. 2 to 21, according to its website. The targeted services will be in Colorado, Hawaii, Louisiana, Michigan, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin.

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