A federal judge has rejected a motion by the American Civil Liberties Union to block enforcement of Missouri's House of Worship Protection Act. Senior U.S District E. Richard Webber has denied a request for a preliminary
injunction against the new law, which was adopted by the Missouri General Assembly earlier this year.
Judge Webber ruled that the plaintiffs had failed to demonstrate that they were likely to succeed in a trial on the merits of the new statute. The senior judge decided for now that the worship protection measure does not constitute an unconstitutional infringement of freedom of speech, and will be allowed to stand pending a full hearing on the merits of the law.
The House of Worship Protection Act prohibits the intentional and unreasonable disruption of a worship service, or any effort to intimidate or interfere with a person's right to exercise his or her religious freedom at a house of worship. It was sponsored by Senate President Pro Tem Rob Mayer of Dexter.
The law is a response to episodes in other states where social activists have invaded churches during worship times to engage in hostile and boisterous protests. Such tactics have become a favorite strategy in recent years of the homosexual rights movement, but have also been used over the years by anti-war protesters and anti-Jewish elements.
The ACLU brought the lawsuit on behalf of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP) and Call to Action. The two groups are known for protests outside of Catholic churches over allegations of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy. The ACLU claimed that the new law would restrict the free speech activities of the two groups in seeking to share their message with potential victims of sexual abuse.
Judge Webber correctly ruled that the law imposes minimal restriction on the group's activities. "Plaintiffs may freely walk on the public areas adjacent to the houses of worship, carry signs and banners, and distribute leaflets communicating their message before services...and even during worship services, as long as the manner in which they conduct their activities is not intentionally or unreasonably disruptive."
The ACLU alleged in its motion that the new law was an unconstitutional regulation of the content of speech. Judge Webber disagreed in very pointed fashion. "The statute's restrictions are not a regulation of speech, but rather of the places where some speech may occur and the manner of its conveyance...The Supreme Court has recognized the state's interest in protecting citizens from
unwanted communications while in their homes, and while they are a 'captive audience.'"
"The regulation places no restrictions on a particular viewpoint or any subject matter that may be discussed by a speaker," Webber continued. "The statute's thrust is to restrict speech because of its manner, not its content."
The key question before the court is whether the language of the House of Worship Protection Act is "narrowly tailored" to "serve a significant government interest." Judge Webber concluded that it is. In fact, he pointed out that the statute "places fewer obstacles to protesters than other statutes found not to offend the exercise of free speech."
The Missouri Family Policy Council played the leading role in developing this new statute, borrowing from
language in other state laws that have been upheld in the face of legal challenges. Judge Webber took note of those cases, stating: "Several state courts have upheld statutes with language similar to that contained in [the House of Worship Protection Act] against vagueness challenges."
Webber referenced the case of People v. Cruz
out of California. In that incident, screaming and hollering protesters beat on the doors of a crowded church with poles while a Catholic Mass was being conducted, breaking the glass; knocked down an usher; wrestled with a security guard in the vestibule, and hit him with a bottle; burst through the doors of the chapel between
the priest and the congregation while the Gospel was being read; and assaulted other churchgoers.
The most notorious incidents of church disruption have been instigated by a militant homosexual rights group called Bash Back. The major episode involving this group occurred at Mount Hope in Lansing, Michigan, in November of 2008. Members of the group dressed in battle gear carrying an upside down pink cross blocked access to the church while members dressed in plain clothes infiltrated the church building.
During the service, protesters stood up shouting religious slurs, including the chant "Jesus was gay." The group also flung condoms and propaganda around the sanctuary as two women kissed near the podium, and then set off the fire alarms as they raced out of the building.
After the event, Bash Back took credit for the attack on their website, saying that Mount Hope was a "deplorable, anti-queer mega-church" and "a disease in the community." The group described themselves as "a pack of wolves" who "will continue to bash back."
A federal judge had a different idea. He issued a permanent injunction last year against the group and its members, threatening them with individual fines of $10,000 if they disrupt a church service anywhere in the country. Prior to his injunction, the group had attacked another church in Fort Wayne, Indiana, ransacking the property and spray painting the devilish number "666" on the church van and garage door.
Judge Webber emphasized in his ruling on the new Missouri law that his findings and conclusions on the preliminary injunction request were not binding on the ultimate trial on the challenge to the law. However, it is clear from his initial analysis that the ACLU will have a major uphill climb in their efforts to strike down the House of Worship Protection law.
We want to thank the Missouri Attorney General's office for their firm defense of the House of Worship Protection Act. We appreciate the opportunity to consult with them as this case moves forward along with attorneys from the Alliance Defending Freedom. ADF provided valuable assistance to the Missouri Family Policy Council in the development of this important religious freedom statute.
You can read a copy of Senate Bill 755, the legislation enacting the House of Worship Protection Act, by clicking this link:House of Worship Protection Act