N.D. backing lawsuit against funeral protestersNorth Dakota will join other states in supporting a lawsuit against demonstrators at the funeral of a Marine who was killed in Iraq because it doesn’t want funeral protest restrictions weakened, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said Friday.
By: By Dale Wetzel, The Associated Press, The Jamestown Sun
BISMARCK — North Dakota will join other states in supporting a lawsuit against demonstrators at the funeral of a Marine who was killed in Iraq because it doesn’t want funeral protest restrictions weakened, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said Friday.
Kansas Attorney General Steve Six is preparing a brief that asks the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse a federal appeals court ruling in favor of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., whose members frequently picket and jeer at soldiers’ funerals. The church claims soldiers’ deaths represent God’s punishment for Americans’ tolerance of homosexuality.
Church members shouted and waved signs reading, “Semper Fi Fags,” “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” and “God Hates Fags” at the Westminster, Md., funeral of Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, who was killed in Iraq in March 2006, according to court documents.
Snyder’s father, Albert, sued the church and its members on five grounds, including invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress. He was awarded $10.9 million in damages, which was later reduced to $5 million.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals threw out the verdict in September 2009, ruling that the protests were protected by the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech.
“Notwithstanding the distasteful and repugnant nature of the words being challenged in these proceedings, we are constrained to conclude that the defendants’ signs ... are constitutionally protected,” a three-judge appeals court panel concluded.
The Legislature passed a law in 2007 barring demonstrations within 300 feet of a funeral after Westboro church members protested at the Fargo funeral of a North Dakota National Guard soldier killed in Iraq. Violations may be punished by up to 30 days in jail and a $1,000 fine for a first offense.
More than 40 states have laws restricting picketing and protests at funerals, Six said in a statement.
Stenehjem said he believes the federal appeals court did not adequately consider the Snyder family’s rights “to conduct a religious service and to peaceably assemble for the purpose of doing that.”
Should the U.S. Supreme Court uphold the appeals court’s ruling, North Dakota’s restrictions on funeral protests would be useless, Stenehjem said.
“It would not be likely that you could sustain a criminal conviction of somebody who violated our statute,” he said.