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Federal appeals court upholds part of Missouri funeral protest ban

The US Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit [official website] on Friday upheld [opinion, PDF] a Missouri law that bans protests within 300 feet of funerals but struck down a second broader law that would have increased the distance at which protesters to could congregate. The challenge to the laws came from members of the Westboro Baptist Church [JURIST news archive], who routinely protest the funerals of soldiers and claim that US soldiers killed in combat are God's retribution for American tolerance of homosexuality. The court concluded [AP report] that section 578.501 [text] of the Missouri statutes, which barred protests "n front of or about any location at which a funeral is held" was unconstitutional because the language was too broad and imprecise, and violated the free speech protection of the First Amendment. The court did uphold section 578.502 [text], finding that the 300 foot buffer zone created by the law was constitutional, in that it is "narrowly tailored to serve Missouri's interest in protecting the peace and privacy of funeral attendees," while providing "alternative channels" for protesters to communicate their message. Part of the case was remanded to the district court to address other constitutional challenges brought against the law by the Church.

The Westboro Baptist Church has triggered laws in a number of states limiting the ability to protest funerals. Last year the Eighth Circuit upheld [JURIST report] a municipality's ban on funeral protests. The court ruled that a ban on funeral protests in Manchester, Missouri, was a legitimate restriction on the First Amendment, calling it a "legitimate time, place, and manner regulation" and saying it gave protesters ample opportunities to express their views in other venues. In 2011 Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed [JURIST report] emergency legislation [SB110] making it a crime to picket or protest a funeral. The Church's challenges have been based on the March 2011 US Supreme Court [official website] decision [JURIST report] in Snyder v. Phelps [Cornell LII backgrounder], where the court found that the First Amendment free speech protections extend to protesters at military funerals.

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