ACLU lawsuit challenges Ky. funeral-protest law
By The Associated Press
FRANKFORT, Ky. Ã¢â‚¬â€ Portions of a new state law intended to prevent protesters from disrupting funerals for soldiers killed in Iraq are unconstitutional and should be struck down, the American Civil Liberties Union said in a federal lawsuit filed yesterday.
The ACLU filed suit in U.S. District Court in Frankfort, challenging sections of the law that the group claims go too far in limiting freedom of speech and freedom of expression.
The lawsuit puts the ACLU, which routinely handles discrimination cases involving gays and lesbians, on the same side as Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., which is known for its anti-gay protests.
The law, which also applies to memorial services, wakes and burials, was aimed at members of that church who have toured the country protesting at military funerals. The church members claim the soldiers’ deaths are a sign that God is punishing America for tolerating homosexuality.
The ACLU filed the lawsuit on behalf of Bart McQueary, a Mercer County man who has protested alongside the church members on three occasions. McQueary had no listed telephone number and couldn’t be reached for comment.
U.S. District Judge Karen Caldwell has been assigned to hear the case. The ACLU already has asked her to grant a preliminary injunction that would allow funeral protests to continue.
“Mr. McQueary clearly has the right to express his message in a non-disruptive manner, even if others disagree with him,” said Lili S. Lutgens, an attorney for the ACLU in Louisville.
The law is so broad, Lutgens said, that people could unknowingly violate it by whistling as they walk down a sidewalk, or by stopping to chat on a public sidewalk near a funeral home. She said the law also could prevent pro-military groups from standing outside memorial services to counter the Kansas demonstrators.
“The commonwealth simply cannot prohibit free expression because it doesn’t like certain activities, nor can it suppress the speech of groups or individuals because it doesn’t like the message,” Lutgens said.
Gov. Ernie Fletcher signed the measure into law in March in an attempt to prevent disruptions at military funerals.
Protesters within 300 feet of such services would be guilty of first-degree disorderly conduct, punishable by up to a year in jail. The bill also would prevent protesters from using bullhorns to try to disrupt the services.
Members of the Westboro church have protested at funerals for members of the Kentucky National Guard and U.S. Army soldiers based at Fort Campbell who have been killed in action.
At their protests, members of the Kansas group carry such signs as “Thank God for IEDs,” the improvised explosive devices used by insurgents in Iraq.
Fletcher spokesman Brett Hall said yesterday that the governor hadn’t seen the lawsuit. “We’ll take a look at it and move from there,” he said.
However, Hall said, mourning families deserve privacy and dead soldiers deserve reverence.
“The public should respect their dignity in a very difficult time,” he said. “That’s why this law was passed. It’s inconceivable why anyone would want to protest at a military funeral while family members are there.”
Found at First Amendment Center