Westboro Baptist Church Member Files Amended Neb. Lawsuit
A member of a Kansas anti-gay church has filed an amended complaint in federal court adding more than a half dozen examples of how the church says a Nebraska funeral picketing law discriminates against it.
The amended free-speech lawsuit, filed Monday in Lincoln's U.S. District Court, challenges a Nebraska law that requires protesters to stand 500 feet away from a funeral service. The amended filing comes after a federal appeals court in April reinstated the lawsuit, reversing a lower court's dismissal of the case.
The amended complaint includes at least 16 examples in which the church says its members were kept hundreds of feet from funeral services, while counter-protesters were allowed to congregate immediately outside services. Seven of the examples, from 2010 through 2012, occurred after the lower court dismissed the lawsuit and are being included in the suit for the first time.
"We've had more events than those listed, but what I've done is included the most egregious," said Margie Phelps, a Westboro member and attorney for the church in the lawsuit.
The case stems from a lawsuit filed in 2009 by members of Topeka, Kan.-based Westboro Baptist Church that challenged Nebraska's funeral picketing law and several other constitutional issues surrounding the church's funeral protests. The other issues have since been resolved, but the free-speech challenge to Nebraska's picketing law remains.
Westboro members contend U.S. soldiers and others are being struck down by God for defending a nation that tolerates homosexuality. The group routinely protests at funerals around the country - including more than 40 funerals in Nebraska - and use chants and signs that include anti-gay slurs.
The lawsuit's new examples include a protest in June 2012 at a funeral in York in which the church says members were kept five blocks - about 1,000 feet - from the funeral while counter-protesters were allowed right outside the doors of the church and inside the cemetery.
"They have signs and flags, just like us. There's no difference, other than content," Phelps said. "(The law) is being applied discriminatorily."
The lawsuit also attacks a 2011 revision of Nebraska's anti-picketing law that requires protesters to stand 500 feet away from a funeral service - 200 feet more than the previous 300 feet listed in Nebraska's original 2006 law. The lawsuit notes that Westboro members consistently abided by the 300-foot law after it was passed, so there was no legitimate government interest for pushing protesters farther back.
In reinstating the lawsuit, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals cited court records seeming to show that Nebraska lawmakers targeted Westboro members in creating the 500-foot requirement, noting that one lawmaker said Westboro picketers should be pushed back "perhaps 1,000 feet, or to another state."
A spokeswoman for the Nebraska Attorney General's office did not immediately return a message left Tuesday.
Online court documents show that the state has 14 days to file a reply to the amended complaint.