Crime & Courts

Judge blocks Neb. flag law for now

OMAHA — A federal judge put a temporary block Tuesday on enforcing Nebraska's ban on flag mutilation, part of a lawsuit filed by a member of a Kansas church known for protesting at the funerals of fallen soldiers.

U.S. District Judge Richard Kopf in Lincoln said in issuing the order that the law is "almost certainly unconstitutional."

The request came as part of lawsuit filed earlier in the day by Megan Phelps-Roper, a member of Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, against Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning.

It challenges the constitutionality of Nebraska's flag mutilation law, which bars intentionally "casting contempt or ridicule" upon a U.S. or Nebraska flag by mutilating, defacing, defiling, burning or trampling it.

Chief Deputy Attorney General David Cookson said his office believes the law is still valid but has advised the Nebraska State Patrol of the judge's ruling.

Westboro members travel around the country protesting at soldiers' funerals because they believe U.S. troop deaths are punishment for the nation's tolerance of homosexuality. The group often tramples on, wears and displays upside-down the U.S. flag as part of their protests.

In issuing the order, which is good through July 20 and pertains only to Phelps-Roper, Kopf said that while people may not like the fact that Phelps-Roper has a constitutional right to dishonor the American flag, "the First Amendment trumps the citizenry's preference for patriotism."

Nebraska's funeral protest law prohibits picketing within 300 feet of a funeral or memorial service.

Cookson said people should understand that Tuesday's ruling does not affect the state's funeral protest law — and that the attorney general plans to vigorously defend it.