St. Charles County considers barring funeral protests

ST. CHARLES, Mo. (AP) — A suburban St. Louis county has introduced a measure that would bar protests near funerals, believing the proposal will pass constitutional muster even as the U.S. Supreme Court weighs the matter and a constitutional-rights group pledges to sue.

The St. Charles County Council unveiled the measure Monday, just weeks after the governing board in one of its cities — St. Peters — repealed a city ban on funeral protests under pressure from the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.

The ACLU, citing constitutional free-speech guarantees, has sided in various legal cases with Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., which holds up anti-gay signs during soldiers’ funerals and calls the deaths God’s judgment for what it believes is the nation’s tolerance of gays.

“The ACLU can take their philosophy and ideology and that kind of stuff and shove it,” Joe Brazil, a Republican on the county council, said after Monday’s meeting over the measure, which would cover only unincorporated areas and bar picketing within 300 feet of a funeral site between an hour before and an hour after the observance.

“We feel the families are entitled to privacy. We feel we’re standing on firm ground,” Brazil said.

Assistant County Counselor Robert Hoeynck said the bill is tailored after a Nebraska law that so far has withstood a court challenge. And unlike a Missouri law that was deemed unconstitutional, the county’s measure would apply only to funerals and not to processions on streets and highways, Hoeynck said.

The proposal “focuses on the rights of the surviving families to privacy in mourning their dead in a way that they see fit,” he said.

The county measure is likely to pass because five of the council’s seven members already have declared their support, as has the county executive.

Tony Rothert, the regional ACLU’s legal chief, said the ACLU probably would legally challenge the county measure if it passed, saying it still would be unconstitutional despite being a “a huge improvement” over the defunct Missouri law because processions wouldn’t be covered. St. Peters’ measure also applied to processions.

Rothert said he understands the distaste for the funeral protesters’ message but said such laws can lead to further restrictions on speech.

Although the county also faces a budget squeeze — and would face legal bills if the ACLU does sue over the measure — Brazil said standing up for “principles like this” is worth the cost.

In June, U.S. District Judge Laurie Smith Camp denied a request for a preliminary injunction against the Nebraska law, saying family members “are a captive audience and are particularly vulnerable.” A separate funeral protest case from Maryland is before the U.S. Supreme Court.

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