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Curb on antigay church protests OK

ST. LOUIS — A St. Louis suburb can enforce a funeral protest ordinance aimed at preventing picketing by an antigay Kansas church, a federal appeals court ruled Tuesday.

The ruling by the US Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit reverses a previous ruling by a three-judge panel of the court. The panel ruling last year prohibited the St. Louis County town of Manchester, Mo., from enforcing the law it drafted in response to activities by members of Westboro Baptist Church, based in Topeka, Kan.

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A lawsuit claiming the Manchester ordinance violated the First Amendment right to free speech was filed by Shirley Phelps-Roper, a Westboro member and daughter of pastor Fred Phelps.

Members of the church frequently protest at funerals of soldiers with signs containing messages like ‘‘Thank God for dead soldiers’’ and ‘‘Thank God for 9/11,’’ claiming the deaths are God’s punishment for American immorality and tolerance of homosexuality and abortion.

The Manchester ordinance allows for protest activities, but with limitations. Among them: Protesters are not allowed within 300 feet of a funeral or burial service while it is occurring and for one hour before and one hour after.

Eighth Circuit Judge Diana Murphy wrote that the ordinance ‘‘survives First Amendment scrutiny because it serves a significant government interest, it is narrowly tailored, and it leaves open ample alternative channels for communication.’’

Judge Lavenski Smith agreed, though he wrote in a concurring opinion that the appeals court ‘‘is extending the circumference of what this circuit has previously found constitutes a significant government interest.’’

Courts around the country have wrestled with city ordinances and state laws aimed at keeping Westboro members away from funerals. Some laws, like a statewide law in Missouri, have been overturned. Others have been upheld.

Steve Drain, a spokesman for Westboro Baptist, said the church will continue to protest in spite of the ruling.

‘‘It won’t have any impact,’’ Drain said. ‘‘We’re not interested in breaking any laws, we’re interested in preaching the word of God to a doomed nation.’’

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