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Published: Friday, 8/22/2008

Court upholds Ohio law banning funeral pickets


CINCINNATI A federal appeals court on Friday upheld an Ohio law that bars pickets and protest activities within 300 feet of a funeral or burial service.

The ruling was a loss for the Topeka, Kan.-based Westboro Baptist Church, whose members often demonstrate at military funerals claiming the deaths of U.S. troops are part of God's punishment for the nation's tolerance of homosexuality.

"We are pleased that the court recognizes that grieving families may have some uninterrupted dignity," said Jim Gravelle, a spokesman for the Ohio attorney general's office.

The decision by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a portion of an earlier ruling on the law, which calls for a 300-foot buffer zone around a cemetery, funeral home, or place of worship, from one hour before until one hour after a funeral or burial service.

"It's kind of irrelevant because we don't ever stand that close. It isn't going to impact us at all," said Shirley Phelps-Roper, an attorney for the Westboro church and daughter of the church's founder.

"It's not about where we're standing. It's the principle," she said. "We're talking to the power brokers of America. They are dismantling the First Amendment on the altar of their filthy manner of life. This nation is sprinting to its destruction."

Last year, a district court in Cleveland struck down a portion of the Ohio law that extended the 300-foot buffer zone along funeral procession routes, saying it was unconstitutionally broad. The state didn't appeal the ruling.

Phelps-Roper said that ruling was more important than Friday's loss because pickets unwittingly could come within 300 feet of a funeral procession.

Ohio law regulating picketing of funerals and funeral processions dates to 1957 and was last amended in 2006. Phelps-Roper believes that 43 states have enacted such laws or amended them because of Westboro's picketing, which began in 2005.

Her home state revised its law in March to replace one that was invalidated by the Kansas Supreme Court. It calls for only a 150-foot buffer.

Last October, a federal jury in Baltimore found the church liable for invasion of privacy and intent to inflict emotional distress in a lawsuit brought by the father of a Marine killed in Iraq. The church's appeal is pending.

Westboro members picket up to a half dozen times a week, and not just at military funerals, Phelps-Roper said. Pickets traveled to the funeral of comedian Bernie Mac in Chicago and Bill Gwatney, chairman of the Arkansas Democratic Party, in Little Rock, because "They had a platform to influence people to obey the commandments of God" and failed to do so, she said.

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