Crime & Courts

Neb. officials face lawsuit by Phelps-Roper

OMAHA — A member of the Phelps family, accused of violating Nebraska's flag desecration law two years ago, filed a lawsuit Wednesday against more than a dozen officials — including the governor and attorney general — whom she alleges are trampling her rights.

The lawsuit filed on Shirley Phelps-Roper's behalf in U.S. District Court in Lincoln argues that Nebraska's flag law and another state law that restricts protests at funeral sites should be declared unconstitutional and barred from being enforced.

Phelps-Roper is a member of Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, known for protesting at military funerals to express the belief that U.S. troop deaths are punishment for the nation's tolerance of homosexuality. She alleges that officials are misusing their powers and applying the laws inconsistently, discriminatorily and in violation of her and her fellow church members' right to free speech.

"These steps that we're taking are necessary because that federal court, called the last refuge of the oppressed, is either going to do right or they're going to bring more thunder on your state and on the nation," she said Wednesday.

Nebraska's law against flag desecration bars intentionally "casting contempt or ridicule" upon a U.S. or Nebraska flag by mutilating, defacing, defiling, burning or trampling it. State law also prohibits picketing within 300 feet of funerals or memorial services. The law applies to one hour before services begin and two hours after they conclude. Violators of either law face a misdemeanor charge.

According to the lawsuit, church members have been involved in more than 40,000 protests across the country over nearly 20 years. Church members say all have been conducted peacefully and lawfully.

The group began protesting at military funerals in 2005 — a year before Nebraska's picketing law was adopted.

It was while protesting at the funeral of a National Guardsman in Bellevue, Neb., in 2007 that Phelps-Roper was arrested and subsequently charged with flag desecration and other crimes after letting her then-10-year-old son stand on an American flag. Authorities also said she wore a flag as a skirt that dragged on the ground.

The case is pending after Phelps-Roper lost repeated attempts to get the charges thrown out.

Since the 2007 incident, Phelps-Roper said officials beyond those in Bellevue have used the laws to threaten her and other church members. She argues that their actions have stifled her right to free speech and created a chilling effect for those who want to use the flag to express themselves.

The lawsuit also seeks to declare unconstitutional and bar enforcement of the city of Bellevue's practice of issuing permits to hold protests within city limits.