City leaders agreed Monday that an ordinance limiting protests at funerals could create unwanted legal issues.
The issue was raised by Alderman Jim Albrecht who questioned if Union should follow the lead of other Missouri towns which have created ordinances to keep members of the Westboro Baptist Church from protesting near military funerals.
Specifically, Albrecht mentioned the city of Manchester which bans protests within 300 feet of a funeral or burial service. The U.S. Court of Appeals recently ruled the ordinance is constitutional, which reversed a previous court decision.
“Do we need to say something to that effect?” Albrecht asked. “We aren’t going to allow it here either.”
The Kansas-based church sued eight St. Louis area cities, including Manchester, for similar bans.
That is why some aldermen said Union should avoid passing an ordinance.
“My fear is that we are opening ourselves up to legal costs without a direct need,” said Alderman Dustin Bailey.
City Administrator Russell Rost added that an ordinance could have a negative impact.
“That might encourage them to challenge you,” he said. “We don’t have the problem now, but this could encourage it.”
Alderman Bob Schmuke noted that the support at a military funeral in Union would greatly outweigh any protest.
“I’m sure if someone in the military passed away our residents would come out and support them,” he said.
According to the Associated Press, a lawsuit claiming the Manchester ordinance, and others, violated the First Amendment right to free speech was filed by Shirley Phelps-Roper, a Westboro member and daughter of Pastor Fred Phelps.
Members of the church frequently protest at funerals of soldiers with signs containing messages like “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” and “Thank God for 9/11,” claiming the deaths are God’s punishment for American immorality and tolerance of homosexuality and abortion, the AP reported.
Courts around the country have wrestled with city ordinances and state laws aimed at keeping Westboro members away from funerals. Some laws, like a statewide law in Missouri, have been overturned. Others have been upheld.
Manchester City Attorney Patrick Gunn said the Manchester law was written to resemble an Ohio law already upheld by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, according to the AP report.
Tony Rothert, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney who represented Phelps-Roper, said a decision about whether to appeal will be made soon.
Manchester adopted its ordinance in 2007, though Gunn said Westboro members have never protested at a funeral or burial in that community.
A spokesman for Westboro Baptist said the church will continue to protest at military funerals in spite of the ruling, the AP reported.