A federal judge rejected a request to stop Missouri from enforcing a new state law that makes it a crime to disturb a worship service, but opponents vowed Tuesday to press on with their efforts to overturn it and said they are confident they'll eventually succeed.
Missouri's worship law, which took effect in August, makes it a misdemeanor to intentionally disturb or interrupt a "house of worship" with profane language, rude or indecent behavior or noise that breaks the solemnity of the service. First-time offenders face up to six months in jail and a $500 fine, and repeat offenders face escalating penalties, culminating in up to four years in prison.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which is suing to overturn the law on behalf of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, another group and two individuals, sought a preliminary injunction from the U.S. District Court in St. Louis that would bar enforcement of the law pending the outcome of the lawsuit.
Senior Judge E. Richard Webber rejected the request in a 16-page ruling issued last week. He found that the plaintiffs didn't sufficiently show they were likely to win, and he said the hardship caused by blocking the law would exceed that of allowing it to stand.
"What the statute prohibits is willful behavior intended to interfere with the successful conduct of a worship service," Webber wrote.
Webber noted no determination was made about whether the Missouri law is constitutional and the decision is not binding on later court proceedings.
Tony Rothert, the legal director for the ACLU of Eastern Missouri, said there are numerous problems with the law and he believes the facts of the case will make their arguments stronger. He said the law is vaguely worded and open to subjective enforcement, and people demonstrating near a church wouldn't know whether their conduct could get them arrested.
He said the plaintiffs are pressing on with the lawsuit and haven't decided whether to appeal Webber's ruling. A full hearing of the court hasn't been scheduled.
"It's a disappointing setback, and we think it's wrong. But we don't think it's going to change how the case ends," he said.
The Missouri Family Policy Council, a conservative Christian interest group that supports the new law, said in a Tuesday newsletter that it believes the law's opponents "will have a major uphill climb," because of Webber's ruling.
Other states have a similar law, and the legislative sponsor of Missouri's legislation said there have been isolated incidents around the country of people disturbing worship services.