The US Supreme Court on Monday declined to take up an appeal that sought the enforcement of a Missouri law regulating protests at funerals.
Groups from the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., have been demonstrating at military funerals across the country to spread the church's message that God is punishing America by killing US soldiers for what the church says is the sin of homosexuality.
Church members near military funerals have displayed signs proclaiming: "Thank God for Dead Soldiers" and "God Blew Up the Troops."
Concerned about the disruptive effect of such protests on the sanctity and dignity of burial ceremonies, lawmakers in Missouri passed a law banning protests at funerals.
The church went to court to block enforcement of the state law, claiming it violated the church's free-speech right to spread its message to mourners at exactly the moment church officials believe them to be most receptive.
A federal judge refused to block enforcement of the law. But a three-judge panel of the Eighth US Circuit Court of Appeals reversed. The appeals court said the government had no compelling interest in protecting individuals from hearing unwanted speech in public areas such as outside a church or at a cemetery.
The panel quoted a 1999 Eighth Circuit decision: "We recognize that lines have to be drawn, and we choose to draw the line in such a way as to give the maximum possible protection to speech, which is protected by the express words of the Constitution."
It also said: "We conclude that [the Westboro Baptist Church] is likely to prove any interest the state has in protecting funeral mourners from unwanted speech is outweighed by the First Amendment right to free speech."
The appeals court did not declare the Missouri law unconstitutional. Instead, the court action prevents enforcement of the law pending any judicial decision on the constitutionality of Missouri's funeral protest ban.