The Supremes haven’t begun releasing new decisions yet, but they’re still managing to make news. In this case, it’s not so much what they did as what they opted not to do. A court case out of Nebraska was challenging a law regarding restrictions on protests which interrupt funerals. It takes little imagination to guess that this was aimed directly at Westboro Baptist Church. The church had challenged the law on constitutional grounds but lost their bid in the lower courts. Rather than taking up the task yet again, the Supreme Court declined to hear it and allowed the lower court ruling to stand, keeping the law in place. (Fox News)
The Supreme Court is leaving in place a Nebraska law that bars protests around funerals.
Nebraska enacted the law in 2006. It prohibits protests near a cemetery, mortuary or church from one hour before the beginning of a funeral to two hours after.
Members of the Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church challenged the law but have lost in lower courts. Members of the church routinely conduct anti-gay protests outside military funerals. The protests have been a way of drawing attention to their incendiary view that U.S. deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq are God’s punishment for the nation’s tolerance of homosexuality.
I found myself interested in this case from the beginning and had been wondering how the Supremes would look upon it. It’s one of those ones where your gut definitely tells you one thing, but your rational mind can be uncomfortable with your decision. From the angle of tugging at one’s heartstrings, it’s easy to support this law and all it stands for. Who in the world is supporting the actions of the Westboro Baptist Church beyond their own congregation? People who show up at the funerals of soldiers carrying signs proclaiming how much God hates them and their families fall somewhere on the sympathy scale near child molesters and the bubonic plague. Particularly when speaking of a God renowned as a God of Love, it’s certainly curious to talk about all the people He hates.
But what they’ve been doing, hateful as it is, clearly qualifies as protesting. As long as they’re not physically attacking anyone and staying on public property they have every right to put their message out there just as much as any other group. To be true to our dedication to the actual meaning of the First Amendment (and not the “new” version preached on campuses these days), we have to remember that unpopular speech is the most critical speech to protect. That includes everyone from the Klan to Black Lives Matter and everything in between.
So how do we justify a law which says that protests will not be allowed on public land within a given block of time before or after a particular event? With this decision as precedent, might some other state pass a law forbidding protesting near the site of fundraising events for organizations you may disagree with? If you can’t protest near a funeral, can you similarly be barred from protesting near a wedding? How about a Satanic Black Mass held in a public park?
You can see how we’ve just opened a can of worms and placed it on a potentially slippery slope. Barring the exercise of free speech around one type of event – be it ever so abhorrent – opens the door for many other possibilities. I’m glad to see Westboro Baptist take it on the chin here for purely selfish reasons, but in the long view of history the Supreme Court may not have done us any favors.