Shot Down By Federal CourtThis Tuesday, a U.S. District Judge ruled against the hate-filled Westboro Baptist Church (WBC), chalking up a victory for WBC's enemies (pretty much everyone) and leaving the church members to put away their "God Hates Fags" signs. The case in question centered on a measure passed in St. Charles County, Mo. that bans picketing within 300 feet and one hour before or after any burial service.
Unsurprisingly, the leaders of the church claim that this measure violates their First Amendment rights of free speech, religious liberty and assembly, and Missouri's Religious Freedom Restoration Act. U.S. District Judge Audrey Fleissig ruled that it was not restricting of WBC's First Amendment rights, noting a similar measure that passed in Manchester County, Mo. last year. During that case, Eighth Circuit Judge Diana Murphy argued that the ordinance, which places limitations on picketing, "survives First Amendment scrutiny because it serves a significant government interest, it is narrowly tailored, and it leaves ample alternative channels open for communication."
Despite district court judges ruling against the WBC, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in March 2011 that the protesters of WBC could not be sued. It upheld an appellate court's decision to strike down a jury verdict against Fred Phelps and members of the WBC. Despite WBC's public admonishing of pretty much anything, and the fact that this Church doesn't seem to act like a Church, the WBC still receives a tax-exempt status under the 501(c)(3) provision. While it is prohibited under the 502(c)(3)/nonprofit deal to avoid electioneering and other overtly political activities, the WBC gets away with it because they avoid direct advocacy. Nonprofits are not allowed to financially support or state support to any one candidate running for office. Their "we hate homos" is considered acceptable as long as they don't also say, "We support Prop 8."
While the WBC teeters on the precipice of the political advocacy chasm, those who are against the church will have to delight in the small victories, like the recent ruling in St. Charles County. Other states have also passed similar measures against the WBC, which boasts of about 50 members, mostly composed of Phelps family members. Earlier in the year, North Carolina passed a bill that would limit protests near funerals. In 2012, President Obama also signed a federal law that stated "all demonstrations around military funerals must be held at least 300 feet from the funeral and are prohibited within two hours before or after the service." Councilman Joe Brazil of the St. Charles area was relieved at the ruling. He stated, "I think it is a great victory for us ... Families deserve privacy and the right to grieve the loss of their loved one without having hateful and disrespectful protest activities nearby."