LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Kentucky's law forbidding protests within 300 feet of military funerals and memorial services was suspended temporarily Tuesday after a federal judge ruled it was too broad.
The law passed earlier this year was aimed at members of a Topeka, Kan., church who have toured the country protesting at military funerals. The Westboro Baptist Church claims the soldiers' deaths are a sign of God punishing America for tolerating homosexuality.
U.S. District Judge Karen Caldwell wrote that the law could restrict the free speech rights of people in nearby homes, sidewalks and streets, even if they cannot be seen or heard by funeral participants.
The 300-foot zone "is large enough that it would restrict communications intended for the general public on a matter completely unrelated to the funeral as well as messages targeted at funeral participants," Caldwell wrote in a ruling issued in Frankfort.
Those found guilty of violating the law, which also applies to memorial services, wakes and burials, would face up to a year in jail.
About a dozen states have similar laws in place, and Congress passed a law earlier this year prohibiting protests at military funerals at federal cemeteries.
Kentucky Attorney General Greg Stumbo said he would consider an appeal.
"I believe that society has an interest in honoring its war dead. Funerals are times of sacred and solemn reflection which must be protected from aggressive disruption," Stumbo said in a statement.
Lili Lutgens, general counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky, which filed the suit, said Caldwell "reinforced the importance of freedom of expression," and that the ACLU will seek a permanent injunction throwing out the law.
"We continue to support the commonwealth's efforts to protect funerals, but we know it's not necessary to violate the First Amendment to do that," she said.
Shirley Phelps-Roper, attorney for and member of Westboro Baptist Church, praised Caldwell's ruling.
"I'm surprised, but I'm happy about it," Phelps-Roper said.
Westboro Baptist issued a statement Tuesday night saying members would be in the southeastern town of London on Saturday to picket the funeral for a Kentucky National Guard soldier who died last week in Iraq.
The ACLU filed the lawsuit on behalf of Bart McQueary, a Mercer County man who has protested alongside the church members on three occasions. During their protests, members carry such signs as "Thank God for IEDs," the improvised explosive devices used by insurgents in Iraq.
State Sen. Tom Buford, R-Nicholasville, one of the sponsors of the law, said the 300-foot barrier is the same buffer zone used to keep people from campaigning at voting precincts during elections.
"It would seem we want to give at least as much reverence to a funeral as we do an election," Buford said. "It seems like a sad day for our military."
Lutgens said Caldwell's ruling could impact laws in other states, depending on how they are written and their similarities to Kentucky's statute.