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Westboro Baptist Church Founder Dies, Funeral Protest Law Upheld

By Aditi Mukherji, JD on March 20, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Fred Phelps, the founder of the Westboro Baptist Church -- the Kansas congregation known for picketing funerals with anti-gay signs -- died late Wednesday at the age of 84, CNN reports.

His death and reported excommunication from the church dovetails with a recent decision by U.S. District Judge Fernando Gaitan, Jr., bringing closure to a nearly eight-year long legal fight over the group's funeral protests.

The Westboro church gained notoriety for protesting funerals -- especially for troops killed in combat -- to express their belief that God is punishing the U.S. for homosexuality.

A Westboro protest at a Missouri soldier's funeral in 2005 prompted state lawmakers to respond by passing a general prohibition against protests and pickets near funerals from one hour before they start until an hour after they end. Anticipating that the law might be struck down as unconstitutional, Missouri lawmakers passed a second law adding a specific 300-foot buffer zone.

In 2011, the Eighth Circuit struck down the general prohibition as an unconstitutional infringement on free speech. In a rehearing en banc, the court reversed the panel and upheld the 300-foot buffer around funeral sites, but not around funeral processions, and sent the case back to Gaitan for further proceedings.

Funeral Protest Law Now in Effect

Last week, Gaitan upheld the Missouri law restricting the Westoboro Baptist Church members' ability to protest at funerals, The Associated Press reports. Protesters at funerals must stay 300 feet away starting one hour before the funeral, and ending an hour after the services, Gaitan ruled last week.

As set forth by the law, protesting too close to a funeral will earn offenders up to six months in jail and a $500 fine for a first offense and up to one year in jail and a $1,000 fine for repeat offenders.

In a twist of irony, the debate has shifted to whether people should protest Phelps' funeral -- that is, if the excommunicated founder has a funeral at all.

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