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St. Peters fulfills promise limiting protests at funerals

St. Peters has a new ordinance that limits picketing and protests at funerals, fulfilling a “promise” city officials made to revisit the idea after repealing an earlier ordinance in 2010.

The city’s Board of Aldermen unanimously approved a new ordinance at its Aug. 13 meeting that city officials say incorporates language in similar ordinances adopted by the city of Manchester and St. Charles County.  The language is strong enough to withstand legal challenges, city officials said.

“We have basically come back to a promise we made four years ago to revisit putting this code back on the books after it was removed because of threats of legal action,” said Alderman Patrick Barclay (Ward 4). “We told people we would come back after it was tested in the courts.”

In 2010, the city repealed an ordinance restricting protests at funerals after receiving a letter from the American Civil Liberties Union. The civil liberties union was representing members of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, which challenged local laws restricting protests.

Westboro members have protested at hundreds of funerals for military personnel across the country, including one a few years ago in St. Charles. Westboro members claim the deaths are God’s punishment for America’s tolerance of homosexuality.

The Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2012 that the Manchester ordinance did not violate First Amendment rights because it was narrowly written and offers people other opportunities to express their views. The Manchester and a similar ordinance adopted by the St. Charles County Council appear to meet legal challenges, Special City Counsel Randy Weber said.  Other cities, including O’Fallon, have adopted similar ordinances.

Weber said the city’s new ordinance “marries” provisions from both ordinances, which have been reviewed by the court of appeals.

The ordinance states that its purpose is to “protect the privacy of grieving families and to preserve the peaceful character of cemeteries, mortuaries and places of worship, during a funeral at that place” while providing picketers and protestors an opportunity that “minimizes the interference with the rights of families participating in a funeral.”

The ordinance bans protests within 300 feet of “the premises of a cemetery, mortuary, place of worship or other location were a funeral is conducted” and within one hour before or after a funeral service.

Funerals refer to the ceremonies and services but not funeral processions on public streets and highways or wakes or visitation, the ordinance adds.  Violations of the county ordinance can result in a $500 or 90 days in jail or both.

The new city ordinance was discussed at the board’s June 25 work session and the board directed Weber to draft a city ordinance incorporating language from the county’s and the city of Manchester ordinances.  The board gave the ordinance two readings at their regular session and approved it to get it on the books quickly.

Alderman Jerry Hollingsworth (Ward 4), who is president of the board, asked Weber if he felt the new ordinance was legal. “We absolutely do,” he said.  Hollingsworth also lauded Barclay for his persistence and work on the ordinance.

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