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Law that Restricts Protests Outside Churches Upheld as Constitutional

A federal court in Missouri last week upheld a state statute that restricted when and where protesters could demonstrate in the areas immediately surrounding houses of worship.

In an opinion dated April 19, Senior Judge E. Richard Webber of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri held that the House of Worship Protection Act did not violate the protestors’ free speech rights under the U.S. and Missouri constitutions. The Act also was not unconstitutionally vague, as it only outlawed intentional behavior that disrupts church members attending or leaving houses of worship. The Act makes it a misdemeanor for anyone who “intentionally and unreasonably disturbs, interrupts, or disquiets any house of worship by using profane discourse, rude or indecent behavior, or making noise either within the house of worship or so near it as to disturb the order and solemnity of the worship services.”

The plaintiffs included organizations who seek to reach out to church members who might have been abused by church elders, and attempt to reach such people thorugh protests outside houses of worship. The court framed the debate as trying to find “an acceptable balance between the constitutionally protected rights of law-abiding speakers to reach an audience of individuals who may have been physically, sexually or emotionally abused by clergy members, and the rights of individuals to worship without unwanted communication.” The government argued that the Act “poses a narrowly tailored time, manner and place restriction that serves a significant governmental interest and leaves open ample alternative channels of free expression.”

The government argued that the statute does not constitute a content restriction, because “the activities are prohibited only to the extent they disturb, interrupt, or disquiet a worship service taking place inside that church.” The Act also “serves a significant governmental interest by protecting the free exercise of religion from intentional and unreasonable disruption,” while the Act is narrowly tailored “by prohibiting expression in public for a only if it is intentional, unreasonable and so near a house of worship as to disturb the order and solemnity of the worship services.”

The court, in denying the plaintiffs’ request for a preliminary injunction, had previously determined the Act was content-neutral. The court stuck by that position in finding for the defendants, stating that “ the House of Worship Protection Act applies equally to anyone engaged in intentionally disruptive expressive conduct without regard to its content,” and “the statute’s thrust is to restrict speech only when it is disruptive because of its manner, not its content.” Thus, the Act compared favorably to constitutional restrictions on when and where funeral protesters could picket.

Finding the Act content-neutral, the court turned to whether the Act was narrowly tailored to serve a significant governmental interest, and that ample alternative channels for communication were left open. All agreed protecting the free exercise of religion is a significant governmental interest. Second, the Act was narrowly tailored and permitted alternative channels of communication. The Act only governed the conduct at issue for a short, fixed time period immediately before and after church services. Additionally, protesters are free to express their message at times when there are not church services ongoing. Also, “Plaintiffs may engage in their expressive conduct anywhere else in the community wherever and whenever they desire.” Thus, the Act did not violate the Plaintiffs’ First Amendment free speech rights.

The court also found for the government and dismissed the Plaintiffs’ due process claim, finding that the Act was not unconstitutionally vague. The Act outlawed “intentional” disruptions, meaning any disruptions must be found to have been intentional before an actor would be found in violation of the Act. Finally, the Court dismissed the Plaintiffs’ free speech claim brought under Missouri constitution for the same reasons the speech claims under the U.S. constitution were dismissed. For the entire opinion, click here.

The attorneys at Dalton & Tomich have extensive experience in state and federal courts throughout the U.S advancing the interests of houses of worship as they relate to constitutional issues and land us matters. If you believe your house of worship or members have been improperly deprived of their constitutional rights or a lawful use of property, please contact us.

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