A new law that was sponsored by state Rep. Stanley Cox, R-Sedalia, will require funeral protesters to stay 300 feet from bereavement services, but will allow them to picket along the majority of the procession route.
House Bill 1372 went into effect Aug. 28, along with many other new laws, and revamped existing state statute regarding protests at funerals. The Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals made parts of the preexisting law unconstitutional in a 2013 decision.
“This goes back to this rather extreme group of people who like to single out service members who have been killed in combat. I intentionally never utter their name, because they are just horrible people—it’s just so objectionable,” Cox said
The Spc. Edward Lee Myers law, Missouri Statute section 578.501 and 578.502, enacted in 2006 prevented picketers from protesting at funerals and the procession route. The Eighth U.S. Circuit Court struck down the law because the buffer zone for the protest area was of undetermined size and unclear language. The decision came on the heels of a Federal lawsuit in 2010 by a member of the Westboro Baptist Church, as a violation of her First Amendment rights.
“Back when this was first starting there was a bill that was passed to protect families and give them some privacy in connection with their funeral services. The last change we made, and I think we have done everything we can, was to HB 1372,” Cox said.
The new law prohibits protest in a 300-foot buffer zone around any residence, church, synagogue, funeral home, cemetery or other establishment from one hour before to one hour after the service. It will allow protests along the procession route, provided they are not in the 300-foot buffer. Cox says the new law will clear up the language and has already been upheld by the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
“We just clarified the language. The only change we made was we eliminated the protection during the procession, the thought being a procession can be pretty wide and expansive and the court of appeals said a bill that would infringe upon the First Amendment in connection with a procession would be over broad,” Cox said.
Westboro Baptist Church members, according to their attorney in the 2010 lawsuit, “believe that God is punishing America for the sin of homosexuality and other policies that they believe promote sin by killing Americans, including soldiers.” For many religious reasons the church believes certain funerals are the only place where their religious message can be delivered in a timely and relevant manner.
Cox says the First Amendment people grieving over the death of a loved one deserve to have their rights protected as well.
“In our society funerals are considered something people should be protected from society at large and I certainly share that opinion. Basically this is a reasonable balance between the family’s right to be protected from these crazy people and the rights of people to express their opinions under the First Amendment,” said Cox.