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Supreme Court rejects Westboro Baptist Church's challenge to Nebraska funeral protest law

(Wikimedia Commons/Daderot)Supreme Court building, Washington, DC, USA.

The U.S. Supreme court has refused to consider an appeal filed by the Westboro Baptist Church, which is challenging a Nebraska law that prohibits picketing near funerals.

Westboro Baptist Church member Shirley Phelps-Roper filed a lawsuit questioning the constitutionality of the state law that prohibits protesters from coming within 500 feet of a cemetery, mortuary, church or other place of worship an hour before a funeral, and two hours after.

The 2006 law was passed in response to public outrage over the picketing of military funerals by members of the Topeka-based church, according to Omaha World-Herald.

Church members have been protesting military funerals across the country, claiming that the deaths of U.S. soldiers are God's retribution for the nation's tolerance of homosexuality.

Phelps-Roper had picketed the October 2011 funeral of 26-year-old Navy SEAL Caleb Nelson, holding signs that said "no peace for the wicked" and "thank God for dead soldiers."

The church filed the appeal with the high court in September after the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the law in August, saying it balanced First Amendment rights and the rights of people who attend funerals.

In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the rights of the church members to protest funerals because the protests were held on public property and they were speaking about matters of public concern. However, the ruling allowed the government to put restrictions on time, place and manner of protests, as long as the rules are narrowly written to serve a compelling government interest.

In 2016, a federal district court ruled in favor of Nebraska in the Phelps-Roper case, saying the law was content-neutral, tailored to fit a narrow use, and allowed for other means of protest for the church.

"The rights of all speakers, including Phelps-Roper and others at funerals, to publically express their beliefs are protected by the First Amendment—but are not absolute and some time, place, and/or manner restrictions are allowed," circuit judge Bobby Sheppard stated in the ruling.

The church's appeal to the high court was denied after it failed to get the support of four Justices needed to grant a hearing.

The state law initially barred picketing within 300 feet of a funeral, but the buffer zone was expanded to 500 feet in 2011.

State Sen. Bob Krist, who introduced the 2011 legislation, said he was not surprised by the high court's decision, noting that the law's backers did a lot of research to properly balance the rights of protesters and mourners.

"I know there are many families, including my own, who feel that their rights (should be) respected as well," he said.

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