Hollister aldermen last week expressed their support for a city ordinance prohibiting funeral protests, but several members of the city’s board shared concerns and questions over the draft of the document.
The board held a first reading of the bill which would prohibit “picketing and other protest activities to occur within 300 feet of any residence, cemetery, funeral home, church, synagogue or other establishment during or within one hour before or one hour after the conducting of any actual funeral or burial service.”
Alderman Dave Willard questioned the 300-foot barrier, asking if anyone had researched whether or not it would be legal to increase the distance.
Rick Ziegenfuss, Hollister city administrator, said the distance and the other language found in the ordinance was taken directly from another city’s ordinance and had been approved by the U.S. Supreme Court.
When Willard asked what that meant, Ziegenfuss added that the ordinance, which originated from a town in Ohio, has been challenged before the Supreme Court and upheld.
That means the likelihood of an identical ordinance being challenged and heard again would be slim, but Ziegenfuss noted that changing anything, from the wording of a specific phrase to the distance at which protests must be buffered, would open the legislation up to a court challenge.
Similar city ordinances have been upheld by U.S. Court of Appeals courts, but not the Supreme Court.
In 2011, the Supreme Court ruled 8-1 in Snyder v. Phelps that the protests of military funerals were protected by the First Amendment.
In that ruling, Chief Justice John Roberts stated that because protesters were following the law and obeying police instruction, their rights were protected.
Roberts went on to say that those offended by the protesters were upset with their message, not with any interference of funeral proceedings.
The protest group in that case is the one most cities are hoping doesn’t come to their town — the Westboro Baptist Church based in Topeka, Kan.
The group is made up primarily of the family of church founder Fred Phelps, many of whom are lawyers and have argued before the Supreme Court in the cases themselves.
Alderman Phil Carman, a retired College of the Ozarks English professor, said he agreed with the ordinance’s spirit, but not its wording.
Aldermen unanimously approved the bill’s first reading. A second reading will have to be held at a future meeting before the bill can be passed.
The list of cities with such ordinances continues to grow.
“It’s a discussion on the list for most communities in Missouri, if not the country,” Ziegenfuss said previously.
Ziegenfuss said the protest restrictions came as a recommendation from the city’s insurance provider, who noted that such protests are often confrontational and can lead to altercations, creating liabilities for local governments and police departments.
Forsyth passed an ordinance prohibiting funeral protests last month.
The Forsyth ordinance was styled around a Manchester ordinance upheld by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in October.
Eighth Circuit Judge Diana Murphy said in an opinion that Manchester’s ordinance survived First Amendment scrutiny “because it serves a significant government interest, it is narrowly tailored and it leaves open ample alternative channels for communications.”
That law was modeled on an Ohio state law that was upheld by a different appeals court in 2008.
Ziegenfuss noted that Missouri had a statewide funeral protest law previously.
That law, which established a 100-foot buffer, was overturned.