JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — A federal appeals court on Friday upheld a Missouri law banning protests within 300 feet of funerals but struck down a law that could have kept protesters even farther away.
The decision by a panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals stems from a challenge to a pair of 2006 Missouri laws enacted after protests of military members' funerals by a Kansas-based church that denounces homosexuality.
The appeals court said one law barring protests "in front of or about any location at which a funeral is held" violates First Amendment free speech rights because it creates a buffer zone of an undetermined size. It upheld a separate law setting the 300-foot protest buffer around funeral ceremonies and graveside memorial services, but the court said it cannot apply to funeral processions that wind their way through town.
The common factor in the mixed decision was the precision with which Missouri's laws were — or were not — written.
The 300-foot buffer is "narrowly tailored to serve Missouri's interest in protecting the peace and privacy of funeral attendees and leaves open ample alternative channels for communication" by protesters, U.S. Circuit Judge Kermit Bye wrote in the opinion by a three-judge panel.
Although it ruled the 300-foot buffer did not violate free-speech protections, the appeals panel sent the case back to a trial judge to consider several other complaints brought against the law by Shirley Phelps-Roper, a member of the Topeka, Kan.-based Westboro Baptist Church.
"It's certainly a victory in that one statute is found unconstitutional and the other is severely narrowed," said Anthony Rothert, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney who represented Phelps-Roper.