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Does a fallen soldier deserve more respect than an abortionist?

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Mar 02, 2011

The Westboro Baptist Church is a nasty little bunch of fanatics, who gain publicity for their fundamentalist views in a particularly loathsome way: by picketing the funerals of fallen American soldiers. But 8 members of the US Supreme Court have agreed that even this repellent form of public speech is protected by the First Amendment.

Perhaps so. After all it is when people say unpopular things, and/or say them in unpopular ways, that they need constitutional protection. Those who express polite, conventional views are never in much danger of being silenced. But I have not read the briefs in this case, and I do not propose to examine the constitutional issues. Instead, I want to comment on the way one media outlet (CNN) described the central issue

The justices were being asked to address how far states and private entities such as cemeteries and churches can go to justify picket-free zones and the use of "floating buffers" to silence or restrict the speech or movements of demonstrators exercising their constitutional rights in a funeral setting.

The mention of picket-free zones, and buffer zones, immediately made me think of the laws preventing pro-lifers from coming near the doors of abortion clinics. In my own home state of Massachusetts, the “buffer zone” legislation makes it technically illegal for a pro-life activist even to walk down the sidewalk in front of an abortuary—although any other citizen is free to do so. Somehow this legislation has, to date, survived legal challenges. I don’t understand. 

But then again I do understand. Abortion is the one issue on which all normal legal logic is suspended.

The “buffer zone” has pushed pro-lifers away from the door of one abortion clinic in Massachusetts, so that they gather instead in front of an ordinary retail store. The proprietor might complain that the crowd is discouraging people from entering his store. But he would have no recourse. It is perfectly legal to gather on a public sidewalk in front of any other sort of establishment. Protesters can and do often set up pickets right outside Catholic churches. Abortion clinics alone receive the special “buffer zone” treatment.

In the Westboro Baptist case, CNN tells us that the question was whether or not local laws can establish a “buffer zone” to prevent pickets at funerals. (To be fair, in the course that the Supreme Court decided today, the town did require the demonstrators to remain at a distance from the church.) One might rephrase that question, and say that the justices were being asked whether a funeral deserves the same legal privileges that our society now accords to an abortion.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Mar. 06, 2011 9:57 PM ET USA

    I watched Margie Phelps on Fox this evening; I was struck by both her confidence and her grounding in Scripture. I can't fault her condemnation of homosexuality: we should listen to the message. The problem is that she and her church have ignored I Corinthians 13. It was not the place of the Supreme Court to argue theology with the Phelps family. When was the last time the Court was right with an 8-1 margin? Now... how do we use our rights to dialog with Westboro Baptist?