westboro

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Michigan lawmakers are working  to fine-tune a law intended to protect both freedom of speech and the dignity of military funerals.

The Grand Rapids Press reports:

The bill on Tuesday cleared the Senate's Military and Veterans Affairs Committee by a 3-0 margin, with two Democratic senators absent.

The original law came in response to members of the Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church, which has staged controversial protests at military funerals. Church members assert that military deaths are God’s punishment for tolerance of gays.

Michigan’s law keeps such protesters at least 500 feet from a funeral ceremony, but lawmakers have said other people could have been affected – such as a person parked near a funeral home with an an anti-war bumper sticker on their car, or someone mowing their lawn near a cemetery.

The new version of the bill which cleared the House would make it clear that the actions must be intended to intimidate, threaten, or harass people attending a funeral, service, viewing, procession, or burial.

The Grand Rapids Press reports that the law is in accordance with a U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding the Westboro members' rights to conduct their controversial protests.

-John Klein Wilson, Michigan Radio Newsroom

Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

About a month after a federal judge struck down a Michigan law banning protests at funerals, state lawmakers are taking another go at the issue.

 “We need this protection," said state Representative Bruce Rendon. "And yet everybody does have the freedom of speech in this country and that’s one of the greatest things about America – is we all have the right to express ourselves. But now we’ve defined what we can do within that.”

Legislation before a state Senate panel would specify what protest behaviors would be unlawful. Its aim is to keep protestors from the Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church from disrupting funerals in the state. The group has taken its anti-gay protests to military funerals nationwide.    

Update 1:44 p.m.

A federal judge has struck down the Michigan law that bars protests at funerals.

Detroit U.S. District Judge Thomas Ludington says the law violates free speech rights and is too vague too enforce.

Lewis and Jean Lowden challenged the law after they were stopped and removed from a funeral procession by police.

They had signs critical of President George W. Bush taped to their car windows.

They were on their way to the burial of a family friend who died in Iraq.

Dan Korobkin is the American Civil Liberties Union attorney who represented the Lowdens. He says it is still illegal to disrupt a funeral.

"But what’s not against the law is to express your own views on a public street and risk being arrested or penalized for that just because your views don’t accord with the views of other people – either at the funeral or, even in this case, the police officers who were directing traffic," said Korobkin.

The law was passed largely to stop the Westboro Baptist Church from protesting at the funerals of fallen service members. Members of the church show up outside military funerals with signs that say the deaths were caused by America’s tolerance of homosexuality.

10:55 a.m.

This just came in from MPRN's Rick Pluta:

A federal judge has struck down the state law barring protests at military funerals.

The Michigan law was passed in 2006 to keep members of the Westboro Baptist Church from demonstrating at military funerals. More than 40 states passed similar legislation barring the practice, according to the First Amendment Center.

Last March, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Westboro protesters in the "Snyder v. Phelps" case.

Last month, a similar state law in Missouri was found to be unconstitutional by a federal judge.

We'll have more from Rick Pluta later today.

Unpopular Stands

Mar 3, 2011

Yesterday the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling that effectively overturned a Michigan law -- and undoubtedly angered and outraged the vast majority of the nation’s citizens.

The nation’s highest court said that the obnoxious protests that members of the Westboro Baptist Church stage at military funerals are fully protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution.

Chief Justice John Roberts decreed that our nation’s fundamental commitment to free speech requires full protection of, quote “even hurtful speech on public issues.”

Now if you need reminding, the Westboro Baptist Church is a small group from Topeka, Kansas that mainly consists of the members of one large extended family. They believe homosexuality is evil and America deserves divine punishment for tolerating it.

Accordingly, they’ve been traveling the country picketing at military funerals, waving signs that say things like “God Hates America,” “God Hates Fags,” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.”

Somehow, they believe our war casualties are fitting punishment for tolerance.

Michigan passed a law five years ago that was squarely aimed at the Westboro group. It essentially prohibited any such conduct within five hundred feet of a funeral.

But the U.S. Supreme Court ruling essentially makes it all but certain that the Michigan law will be struck down as unconstitutional, if prosecutors attempt to use it.  Now ever since the 1960s, conservatives have often complained that out-of-touch liberals on the nation‘s highest court were improperly distorting the Constitution.

user dbking / Flickr

In "Snyder v. Phelps," the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Fred Phelps, the leader of the Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas.

The Church got attention by picketing military funerals holding signs that read:

  • "God Hates the USA/Thank God for 9/11"
  • "America is Doomed”
  • “Don’t Pray for the USA"
  • “Thank God for IEDs”
  • “Thank God for Dead Soldiers”
  • “Pope in Hell”
  • “Priests Rape Boys”
  • “God Hates Fags”
  • “You’re Going to Hell”
  • and last, but not least... “God Hates You.”

From the Wall Street Journal:

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that the First Amendment protects a fringe religious group that protested at the funeral of a U.S. Marine killed in Iraq.

The court, on an 8-1 vote, ruled that the soldier's father couldn't sue Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., for celebrating his son's death with vulgar funeral pickets and an online attack.

The case was a test of how far the First Amendment goes in protecting offensive speech.

(courtesy of Westboro Baptist Church)

Members of a controversial church group that protests outside soldiers' funerals will speak at Central Michigan University next week.

Journalism professor Tim Boudreau says he invited Shirley Phelps-Roper of the Westboro Baptist Church to talk to his students.

Members of the Kansas church believe U.S. soldiers' deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan are punishment for the nation's tolerance of homosexuality and abortion.

Boudreau says he caught his students by surprise when he told them who was coming.