by Brittany Ruess and Tierre Rhodes
The Webster Groves City Council is the most recent in a series of municipal entities to place restrictions on funeral pickets and protests. At its meeting on Tuesday, March 5, city council unanimously passed Bill 8787, which puts restrictions on the picketing or protesting of funerals within an hour before or after a funeral and 300 feet from the funeral site.
Council member Debi Salberg said her friend, who is also a Kirkwood City Council member, told her the Kirkwood council was going to address the protesting of funerals.
Salberg said she then brought the same idea as an ordinance to the Webster Groves City Council.
“It just bothered me that people would be in a grieving situation and the prime example is Westboro Baptist Church as the main problem and I didn’t want it to happen here,” Salberg said. “There are 38 churches in Webster Groves and there are a lot of opportunities for funerals and I didn’t want that to happen here.”
Kirkwood’s City Council passed its bill. The Creve Coeur City Council followed with passing its own ordinance, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The Post-Dispatch also reported St. Louis County Council member Steve Stenger requested the county counselor’s office create a similar ordinance. These motions took place in January.
The first of the funeral-restriction ordinances came out of Manchester in 2007 but were revised in 2009, said Manchester Alderman Mike Clement. The revision, which mirrored Ohio Revised Code 3767.30, ruled funeral pickets and protests cannot take place within an hour before or after, or 300 feet of a funeral.
Following Manchester’s ordinance revision, Shirley Phelps of the Topeka-based Westboro Baptist Church partnered with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and filed suit against the city of Manchester. They claimed the ordinance was in violation of the church members’ first amendment right — the right to assemble. The Eighth Circuit Court sided with Westboro and the ACLU.
Upon appeal, the U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down that ruling. Westboro failed to appeal within 90 days. As a result, Manchester’s ordinance to restrict protesting at funerals was no longer in violation of the U.S. Constitution and Manchester passed the ordinance.
With the appellate court’s ruling, St. Louis area municipalities, including Webster Groves, followed suit with their own ordinances.
“I don’t think (Webster Groves Bill 8787 is) designed to prohibit people from protesting, I think it’s just designed to balance the needs of those people who are grieving with those people who want to protest for whatever reason,” Helmut Starr, Webster Groves city attorney, said.
The language in the Manchester ordinance, Ohio Revised Code and one recently passed in Webster Groves are nearly identical, and for good reason, said Starr.
“If you have a court opinion that has upheld a specific ordinance you know that ordinance is relatively insulated from further legal challenge,” Starr said. “If you were to make changes to it, then you might open the door to a different kind of legal challenge than the first ordinance that was passed.”
Clement said the church has protested in Manchester twice in five years. Although they were short protests, it was enough to stir the community.
“It was just so repulsive. We occasionally have veterans that are killed in the line of duty,” Clement said. “I was one that just felt it was totally objectionable and we should try to stop it.”
Before Westboro and the ACLU met Manchester in court, several cities in Missouri were on board to enact similar ordinances, said Clement. After the ACLU threatened to file lawsuits, Clement added, all of the cities that were involved dropped drafting their ordinances. Manchester, though, proceeded with its ordinance.
At a following meeting, the Manchester City Council was faced with the question of, “Do we want to drop out, or do we want to push on?” Clement said.
The Board of Aldermen at that point agreed upon an initiative for funeral-protesting restrictions.
“We really said we’re not going to back down here if we have any chance at succeeding,” Clement said. “So, September 2009 is when we reaffirmed our commitment to protect our community’s funerals from these kinds of protests.”
Kirkwood Mayor Arthur J. McDonnell said Kirkwood has not had any funeral protesting, but they wanted to protect themselves from it. He added Kirkwood has a strong veteran presence.
“I do think that the families of the soldiers who have died certainly deserve to have a peaceful and a pleasant funeral experience and not have protesters out in front,” McDonnell said. “I think the protesting can be done at the legislature or something like that, just not in front of funeral homes where the military young men and women have been killed.”
—Sam Masterson contributed to this story