U.S. Supreme Court declines church’s challenge to Nebraska funeral picketing law

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By Chris Kenning

CHICAGO (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday left in place a Nebraska law that prohibits picketing near funerals after it was challenged by a Kansas church known for anti-gay protests.

Topeka-based Westboro Baptist Church had filed suit against the 2006 Nebraska measure prohibiting protests within 500 feet of a cemetery or church before and after a funeral.

The Supreme Court said it would not take up the church’s challenge to the state law.

Westboro members are known for protesting at military funerals, including soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, which they believe are result of God’s wrath over the United States’ tolerance of gay, lesbian and transgender people and adultery.

“We’re going to keep going,” Westboro lawyer Margie Phelps said in an interview with Reuters on Monday. “We’ve got to warn the nation.”

The church has protested at hundreds of funerals over the last decade, Phelps said. That has continued after the 2014 death of Fred Phelps, the pastor who led the vitriolic “God Hates Fags” anti-gay campaign across the United States.

Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson could not immediately be reached for comment.

The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in August that the state law appropriately balanced free-speech rights and the privacy right of mourners to grieve without intrusions.

The Nebraska law had been challenged by Phelps’ sister Shirley Phelps-Roper, a Westboro member involved in picketing the October 2011 funeral of Caleb Nelson, a 26-year-old Navy SEAL from Omaha.

Protesters held signs with messages that said “no peace for the wicked” and “thank God for dead soldiers.”

The 8th Circuit upheld a similar ordinance in 2012 from the city of Manchester, Missouri, involving a 300-foot buffer. Phelps said many states have similar laws.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2011 that the church’s picketing at a private funeral and even hurtful protest messages were protected by the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment.



(Reporting by Chris Kenning, Editing by Ben Klayman and Dan Grebler)