By MARGERY A. BECK
OMAHA, Neb. (AP) - A federal appeals court on Thursday struck down a Nebraska law that keeps protesters several hundred feet away from a funeral or memorial service.
A three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a U.S. District Court ruling against members of Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., relying on its 2008 ruling in a Missouri case that said peaceful protests near funerals are protected by the First Amendment's right to free speech.
The opinion came on the appeal of a lawsuit filed by Shirley Phelps-Roper, a member of the Westboro Baptist Church that regularly protests at the funerals of fallen soldiers. Phelps-Roper had asked for a preliminary injunction to stop enforcement of the law, saying it was unconstitutional.
When Phelps-Roper filed her lawsuit, Nebraska's law prohibited picketing within 300 feet of a funeral or memorial service. Lawmakers have since passed a measure that requires picketers to stay at least 500 feet away from funerals.
The lawsuit followed Phelps-Roper's arrest during a 2007 protest by Westboro Baptist Church members at the funeral of a National Guardsman in Bellevue. Authorities said she let her then-10-year-old son stand on an American flag and that she wore a flag as a skirt that dragged on the ground. Charges against her were dropped in exchange for Phelps-Roper dismissing all her state and federal lawsuits against Sarpy County authorities.
But her lawsuit against state and Bellevue officials remains active.
Phelps-Roper is the daughter of Topeka, Kan.-based Westboro Baptist Church founder Fred Phelps. Members of the church believe U.S. troop deaths are punishment for the nation's tolerance of homosexuality.
The appeals court reversed the ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Laurie Smith Camp, who had said that the Nebraska funeral picketing law protects family members attending services, while leaving ample alternatives for Phelps-Roper's protests that are protected by the First Amendment. The judge had also said Phelps-Roper had not demonstrated she would likely prevail in her challenge to the state law, but recent rulings have proved otherwise.
Thursday's opinion was the latest in a line of court rulings that have often favored Westboro Baptist Church. In 2008, a three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that church members could picket soldiers' funerals in Missouri. Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 8-1 in favor of Westboro Baptist in a lawsuit filed by Albert Snyder, the father of a fallen Marine who sued the church for the emotional pain they caused by showing up at his son Matthew's funeral.