Amidst a notable upswing in conservative Christian claims that their own rights to religious freedom and are being challenged and the increasingly tense controversy over the “Ground Zero Mosque,” there was another development in the fight to define what is protected by the First Amendment religion clauses.
CNN is reporting that a federal judge has ruled a Missouri State law prohibiting is picketing and protesting outside military funerals is unconstitutional.
The challenge was brought by the Westboro Baptist Church and its pastor Fred Phelps, who were the target of the law. In the 1990s, Phelps and members of his church began attending funerals of gays who had died from AIDS, holding signs intended to be offensive including the most photographed one: “God Hates Fags.” Over time they began moving the demonstrations to the funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. In their view, God had caused the deaths as judgment over American policies that increasingly recognize rights of gays and lesbians. Recently Westboro Baptist made the trip from the Midwest to the west coast to protests to at Comicon in San Diego where they were met with a mocking counter-demonstration.
At issue is the right of families of the deceased to mourn in private against what is clearly political speech—although legal efforts to stop the church’s protests were not raised when the target was gays but only now the target is the families of soldiers.
Of course, if you watch South Park (or if you are twenty-five or younger) you know that the meaning of the term “gay” has changed such that it is Phelps himself who is gay.
Stay tuned for more developments as this question will be heard by the US Supreme Court in October, in another case involving Westboro Baptist.