Friday, December 07, 2007

8th Circuit Enjoins MO's Funeral Picketing Law; KS Law Argued in State Supreme Court

Leaders of the Topeka, Kansas Westboro Baptist Church yesterday won their appeal to the U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals and obtained a preliminary injunction prohibiting Missouri officials, at least for now, from enforcing the state's anti-funeral picketing law against them. The court summarized plaintiff's claim as follows:

Phelps alleges members of her church believe God is punishing America for what WBC considers the sin of homosexuality by killing Americans, including soldiers. As part of her religious duties, she believes she must protest and picket at certain funerals, including the funerals of United States soldiers, to publish the church's religious message: that God's promise of love and heaven for those who obey him in this life is counterbalanced by God's wrath and hell for those who do not. Phelps believes funerals are the only place where her religious message can be delivered in a timely and relevant manner.
In Phelps-Roper v. Nixon, (8th Cir., Dec. 6, 2007), the court held that plaintiff had demonstrated a fair chance of prevailing on the merits of her claim, and so was entitled to a preliminary injunction while the constitutionality of the statute is being thoroughly reviewed. Treating the statute as content-neutral and thus subject to intermediate scrutiny, the court questioned how important an interest the state has in protecting individuals from unwanted speech directed at them outside of their home. It said that plaintiff has a fair chance of proving that the Missouri statute is not narrowly tailored or is facially overbroad, and that it does not leave open ample alternative channels of communication. The court relied particularly on its 1999 decision in Olmer v. Lincoln enjoining enforcement of a law banning picketing of churches immediately before, during and after a scheduled religious activity. The AP yesterday reported on the decision. [Thanks to How Appealing for the lead.]

Meanwhile, AP reports that yesterday morning the Kansas Supreme Court heard arguments in another funeral-picketing-law case. Kansas placed a provision in its anti-funeral picketing statute, preventing it from going into effect until it was declared constitutional by the state Supreme Court or a federal court. The provision was included in order to prevent Westboro Baptist Church from becoming a plaintiff in a case challenging the law, and potentially collecting attorneys' fees if successful. (AP) However now the Kansas Supreme court is questioning whether the judicial trigger is constitutional. The Kansas attorney general's office is arguing that the judicial trigger provision can be struck down and the remainder of the law enforced. (See prior related posting.)