Attorney General Chris Koster says he will appeal a federal judge’s ruling that struck down the state’s restrictions on protests at military funerals.
Koster says the ruling against the funeral protest law won’t end the legal battle.
“We do intend to appeal the funeral protest decision,” Koster told reporters during a break in the Lake of the Ozarks water quality symposium at Tan-Tar-A resort. “Judge Gaitan’s hands were tied. There is a fairly restrictive 8th Circuit opinion that really directed his decision in this matter.”
United States District Judge Fernando Gaitan found that laws approved by the legislature in 2006 violated free speech rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. Lawmakers approved two laws in 2006. One prohibits protests near any military funeral from an hour before until an hour after the funeral. Another requires protestors to stay at least 300 feet from the ceremonies and processions.
Gaitan ruled that the state failed to prove there was significant government interest to promote the restrictions. He expressed sympathy for the argument that those attending the funerals deserve some protection, but that the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals had already rejected that argument.
Koster says the US Supreme Court is considering a similar law from another state. It could resolve the matter before Missouri law works its way through the appeals process.
“We’re going to go to the 8th Circuit now. It’s going to take the US Supreme Court probably the remainder of the following term in order to decide this issue, but it is on its agenda,” Koster said. “And I think the Supreme Court’s desire to address this issue indicates that they want to consider it in light of family privacy issues.”
Koster says that should the law ultimately be struck down, he believes the legislature could re-write it to address the court’s concerns.
The legislature approved the restrictions in response to protests staged by the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas led by the Rev. Fred Phelps. The renegade church makes it a practice to protest at miltary funerals, preaching that military deaths demonstrate God’s judgment on America for its tolerance of homosexuality.
Senate leader Charlie Shields says legislators knew it was a risk, and tried to pass laws that would not be construed as unconstitutional. He calls the ruling disappointing and expects the legislature will try to reword the current laws to appease the courts.
“It’s up to the Attorney General to decide to what level he wants to pursue this, but I think this is something that will continue to be an issue as long as this one church and its followers continue to protest at military funerals and what I would describe as continue to harrass military families,” Shields says.