Missouri House approves funeral protest restrictions

JEFFERSON CITY | The Missouri House pressed forward Thursday to put new restrictions on funeral protests, despite a U.S. Supreme Court ruling earlier this week affirming the First Amendment right of groups such as Westboro Baptist Church to hold demonstrations.

State lawmakers said they want to keep protesters away from funerals to protect mourners from intrusions and because of fears that violence could be directed at demonstrators.

The House voted 142-15 on Thursday to approve legislation that would make it a misdemeanor to protest within 500 feet of a cemetery, mortuary, church or other house of worship from two hours before a funeral to two hours after the ceremony. Violators would face up to six months in jail. The legislation also would make it easier for people to file lawsuits for the infliction of emotional distress against protesters who violate those restrictions.

That bill — now moving to the state Senate — comes after a federal judge declared last year that two Missouri funeral protest laws approved in 2006 were unconstitutional.

The legislative efforts are aimed at members of the Topeka, Kan.-based Westboro Baptist Church, who hold funeral demonstrations across the country while contending that 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.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with Westboro and ended a lawsuit brought by Albert Snyder, who sued church members for the emotional pain caused by a demonstration at his son Matthew's funeral in Maryland. Chief Justice John Roberts said in his opinion for the court that the First Amendment protects "even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate."

Supporters of Missouri's legislation said Thursday that they do not think the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling would directly affect their measure because that case involved a civil lawsuit and the bill generally involves criminal penalties.

"We are creating a crime that has reasonable, time, place and manner restrictions," said Rep. Mike Colona, D-St. Louis, who is an attorney. "That is a completely different standard of review, a completely different area of the law than the case that was decided by the Supreme Court."

Critics said the Missouri legislation inhibited free speech rights and said that the high court's ruling in the funeral protest case strengthened doubts about whether the proposed protest restrictions are constitutional.

"We must protect free speech that we hate," said Rep. Rory Ellinger, D-University City. "That is the essence of the First Amendment."

Others noted that free speech rights are not absolute and already have been limited in some cases.

Rep. John McCaherty said the legislation set rules for protesting and did not restrict what people could say.

"If Westboro Baptist Church or any other association or something like that, would like to come and protest, you are more than welcome, come on down. But we are setting guidelines," said McCaherty, R-High Ridge. "You have the right to do this, but we have the right to tell you when, where and how."

Several Missouri communities have faced a legal challenge after approving local ordinances that restrict funeral protests. Among those are St. Charles city and county. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported Thursday that local officials there said they planned to continue try to prevent protests outside funerals. A lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri, which has represented the church, said the Supreme Court's ruling would strengthen their argument.