Crime & Courts

Phelps-Roper files suit against Nebraska prosecutors

OMAHA — A member of a Topeka church that protests at soldiers' funerals because it believes God is punishing the U.S. for tolerating homosexuality filed a lawsuit Monday in federal court accusing Sarpy County, Neb., prosecutors of violating her rights.

The lawsuit is the latest filed by Shirley Phelps-Roper, who was arrested in 2007 during a protest at the funeral of a National Guardsman in Bellevue. Authorities say she let her then-10-year-old son stand on an American flag and she wore a flag as a skirt that dragged on the ground.

Phelps-Roper's lawsuit says Sarpy County Attorney Lee Polikov, as well as other prosecutors in the office, violated her constitutional rights "by investigating her for protected expressive activity," among other things.

Phelps-Roper is a member of Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, which has about 75 members, all but about a dozen of them relatives of the church's pastor, Fred Phelps. Church members travel the country protesting at soldiers' funerals because they believe U.S. troop deaths are punishment for the nation's tolerance of homosexuality. Members often trample on, wear and display the American flag upside-down as part of their protests.

Phelps-Roper had been charged by Polikov's office with violating the state's flag law, as well as child abuse, contributing to the delinquency of a minor and negligent child abuse stemming from her 2007 arrest.

However, counts related to violating the state's flag law were dropped after Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning and other officials agreed earlier this year that the flag mutilation law was unconstitutional. That law had barred intentionally "casting contempt or ridicule" upon a U.S. or Nebraska flag by mutilating, defacing, defiling, burning or trampling it.

Polikov said Monday that he had not seen Phelps-Roper's latest lawsuit and could not comment specifically on it. But he noted that he still planned to see Phelps-Roper prosecuted in Sarpy County Court later this month on charges of child abuse and disturbing the peace.

"We won't argue our case in the press, we'll argue it in court," Polikov said. "They're filing so many actions and requests, there's no merit in addressing each one individually."

Phelps-Roper has had some success with her lawsuits over the arrest. A federal judge last month permanently stopped the state's flag mutilation law from being enforced. Also last month, the city of Bellevue agreed to pay Phelps-Roper a $17,000 settlement in exchange for her dropping a lawsuit she had filed against the city.