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Federal appeals court allows temporary block of Missouri funeral picketing law

[JURIST] The US Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit [official website] ruled [opinion, PDF] Thursday that Shirley Phelps-Roper, a member of the controversial Westboro Baptist Church [WARNING: readers may find material at this church website offensive; BBC report], is entitled to a preliminary injunction preventing the enforcement of a Missouri state statute [text] banning protesters from picketing near funerals while the law is under constitutional review. The appeals court found that the district court, which denied Phelps-Roper's original motion on its merits, did not engage in a "meaningful analysis of whether section 578.501 [Missouri's 'Funeral Protests Prohibited' law] is narrowly tailored or overbroad; it found only that the statutory language has plain meaning, which a person of ordinary intelligence could ascertain." The preliminary injunction enables Phelps-Roper and other members of her church to resume picketing at military funerals, pending a decision by the federal trial court in Kansas City.

Phelps-Roper has argued that the Missouri statute is not sufficiently clear in defining how far from funerals church members can picket, contending that vague language, including phrased like "in front of" and "about," offers too much discretion to law enforcement officers and other officials. The Eighth Circuit acknowledged these First Amendment concerns in its opinion Thursday, recognizing that "Phelps-Roper has a fair chance of proving any interest the state has in protecting funeral mourners from unwanted speech is outweighed by the First Amendment right to free speech." Several states have enacted similar laws intended to prevent Westboro from picketing at military funerals and in 2006, President Bush signed into law [JURIST report] the Respect for America's Fallen Heroes Act [HR 5037 summary; PDF text], prohibiting any demonstration within 300 feet of the entrance of a national cemetery and within 150 feet of an entrance into the cemetery for one hour before and after a military funeral. In October, a federal jury awarded the father of a fallen Marine almost $11 million [JURIST report] in damages for harm caused by Westboro's protests at his son's funeral. The Topeka Capital Journal has more.

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