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Home arrow Opinion arrow Editorials arrow An ugly way to highlight beauty of the First Amendment

An ugly way to highlight beauty of the First Amendment


So the Westboro Baptist Church, that cult of homophobic cretins, has had its little victory at the Supreme Court.

Rarely, if ever, has an uglier bunch taken refuge in the beautiful glow of the First Amendment.

But such is the nature of that treatise on freedom, that its benefits must accrue to the evil as well as to the righteous.

We brand the High Court’s 8-1 ruling last week as a “little” victory because we don’t believe this “church” — most of whose members belong to the same family — truly gained anything significant as a result.

We’re confident that the vast majority of Americans — we’re talking 99.99 percent — are disgusted by this group’s public spectacles.

We’re equally convinced that a similar percentage of Americans recognize the Supreme Court’s ruling as a symbol of the strength of the Constitution, not an endorsement of Westboro’s abhorrent beliefs and tactics.

Yet we agree with the eight justices who concluded that Westboro’s protests near funerals for America’s military members are Constitutionally protected speech.

The church members, in the 2006 Maryland civil case that the Supreme Court ruled on, complied with a law requiring that they stay 1,000 feet away from the funeral for Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder.

And, as Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion, although the church’s actions are “certainly hurtful, they also deal with “matters of public import” such as the United States’ and its military’s policies regarding homosexuality.

But although we’re not worried that Westboro will ever gain even a smidgen of influence in this country, we’re still troubled because last week’s ruling reminds us that Oregon law offers not even the constitutionally acceptable protections against such protests.

We are one of four states that lack a law setting a buffer zone designed to protect mourners at funerals.

This is not acceptable — especially as a Westboro leader claims the church, apparently emboldened by the Supreme Court ruling, will increase its protests.

We’ve no doubt that groups such as the Patriot Guard Riders, volunteer motorcycle riders who offer to shield mourners during military funerals, will continue their good work.

But in any state without a buffer law there is the chance that the interaction between Westboro and the Patriot Guard or other such groups could get violent.

This church has caused enough psychological damage as it is; we don’t want to add physical harm to the toll (as satisfying as it might be were Westboro members to be on the receiving end).

Fortunately, the Oregon Legislature is considering House Bill 3241, which would establish a 300-foot buffer.

The bill should be one of the earliest to reach Gov. John Kitzhaber’s desk.

 
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