As Fred Phelps Inches Toward Hell, Missouri Law Forbids Funeral Protests He's Known For

Mar 18, 2014 at 9:30 am
Rev. Fred Phelps.
Rev. Fred Phelps.

The hate-mongering piece of garbage that is The Rev. Fred Phelps Sr., is almost dead, but at least he lived long enough to see a Missouri judge uphold a law forbidding his followers from one of their most antagonizing tactics: funeral protests.

Protesters at funerals must stay 300 feet away starting one hour before the funeral and ending an hour after the services, U.S. District Judge Fernando Gaitan, Jr., ruled last week.

Phelps' followers, who call themselves the Westboro Baptist Church, are known to protest funerals -- especially for troops killed in combat -- to express their belief that God is punishing the U.S. for homosexuality. The protests are a large reason why the Southern Poverty Law Center calls Phelps' group "arguably the most obnoxious and rabid hate group in America."

See also: Mizzou Students Prepare to Block Homophobic Protest Against Michael Sam with Human Wall

Nine years ago, about twenty of Phelps' followers picketed the funeral of Army Spc. Peter Navarro, a 20-year-old from Wildwood who died Dec. 13, 2005, when an improvised explosive device detonated near his Humvee in Taji, Iraq. Protest signs blamed Navarro's death on the U.S. government's tolerance of gays.

click to enlarge Westboro Baptist Church protesters at the World Series. - Danny Wicentowski
Danny Wicentowski
Westboro Baptist Church protesters at the World Series.

In 2006, the Missouri Legislature responded by passing a law prohibiting funeral protests. Shirley Phelps-Roper, Phelps' daughter, filed a challenge to the law with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, saying it violated First Amendment rights.

A long legal battle followed, with the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that a buffer-zone between funerals and protesters must have a pre-determined size to be constitutional.

Last week, Gatain ruled that the 300-foot buffer rule was constitutional and enforceable, lifting the injunction on the law and allowing police to enforce it for the first time since January 2009.

"My office has been fighting for five years to ensure that funerals for fallen soldiers can be free of disruptive protesters shouting right outside the church door," says Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster. "No parent who has lost a child should be confronted by the hate and intolerance of strangers, and today's ruling means parents and other loved ones will have a protective boundary from protesters."

Protesting too close to a funeral will earn offenders up to six months in jail and a $500 fine for a first offense and up to one year in jail and a $1,000 fine for repeat offenders.

Phelps is on the edge of death, according to his son, Nathan Phelps, who is estranged from his father.

Follow Lindsay Toler on Twitter at @StLouisLindsay. E-mail the author at [email protected].