(The following is my column from this week's Newton County News.)
The First Amendment is rightly prized by Americans and envied by those in other countries.
The five freedoms the First Amendment offers the American people are the cornerstone of our society.
We have the freedom of assembly, the freedom to petition our government with our grievances and the freedom of the press.
The other two freedoms offered in the opener to the Bill of Rights are the center of an issue that at one time was covered by every newspaper and electronic media outlet in the United States, but since then has fallen off the map.
On Oct. 2, U. S. District Court Judge Fernando Gaitan denied a motion by Attorney General Jay Nixon and Governor Matt Blunt to lift a stay that is allowing members of the Westboro Church of God to picket servicemen’s funerals as they wait for their appeal of a new Missouri law preventing the practice.
It is a basic constitutional battle. Do the members of that far-out church have the right to freedom of speech and freedom to practice their religion even when it interferes with a dignified funeral ceremony honoring someone who gave his or her life for this nation?
In his decision, Judge Gaitan said the appeal by church member Shirley Phelps-Roper had not been resolved and that circumstances had not changed, leaving no reason to lift the stay.
The history of the case was outlined in a motion filed Sept. 2 in U. S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri:
"Phelps-Roper alleges that her religious beliefs dictate that 'homosexuality is the worst of all sins and indicative of the final reprobation of an individual.' "
“Because of this belief, the motion said, "Phelps-Roper and the WBC believe that "God is punishing American for the sin of homosexuality by killing Americans, including soldiers." WBC members regularly picket outside of public buildings, churches, parks, and funerals, including the funerals of individuals who have died while serving the United States in Iraq.
“On Jan. 26, 2007, the court ruled against Ms. Phelps-Roper, but she filed an appeal and the stay was issued in February 2007 and has been in place since that time.
“The Eighth District Court of Appeals overruled the district court Dec. 19, 2007, saying the case should be reopened since there was a chance that Ms. Phelps-Roper could prevail, though the decision was careful to say it was not commenting on the Missouri law's constitutionality.”
I am always inclined to go along with the opinion of the late Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, who believed the freedoms offered by the First Amendment should be absolute, but people have the right to bury their loved ones without having a solemn ceremony marred by the acts of a fringe church.
If the minister at the Westboro Church of God truly believes what he is saying, then let him say it at his church; let him say it at a public forum, let him get the proper permits and hold a parade or a rally- but do not let him and his clueless followers infringe on the final farewells to those who have given their lives for this country.
That is not a proper application of the First Amendment…that is a tragedy.