Federal Judge Upholds
Missouri Law Protecting
Houses of Worship
A federal judge has upheld Missouri's new law protecting houses of worship from deliberate incidents of protest and disruption. U.S. District Judge E. Richard Webber has dismissed a lawsuit filed against the House of Worship Protection Act, which was approved by the Missouri Legislature and signed into law by Governor Jay Nixon last year.
The new law made it a crime to disrupt a house of worship through "profane discourse, rude or indecent behavior," or unreasonable noise with the intention to disturb the order and solemnity of a worship service. The scope of the law encompasses any church, synagogue, mosque, or any other public or private place used for religious worship, religious instruction, or other religious purpose.
The lawsuit was brought by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of two activist groups who protest outside Catholic churches. One is the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), which publicizes incidents of alleged sexual abuse by clergy in the St. Louis area. The other is a Kansas City area group known as Call to Action, which advocates for "inclusive policies" in the Catholic community.
The groups contended in their lawsuit that the provisions of the new state statute would restrict their ability to share their message with members of religious congregations during church services. The ACLU argued that the House of Worship Protection Act violated the free speech guarantees of the U.S. and Missouri Constitutions.
Judge Webber ruled that Missouri's new law did not violate the free speech provisions of the First Amendment because it was a content-neutral time, place, and manner regulation, which had been narrowly tailored to serve a significant governmental interest.
"The Court concludes that the House of Worship Protection Act is content-neutral, because the statute's thrust is to restrict speech only when it is disruptive because of its manner, not its content...The statute penalizes only speech that intentionally disturbs the order and solemnity of a worship service...The Court finds that the State's purpose for regulation here, to protect the free exercise of religion, is unrelated to the content of the individual's speech."
Judge Webber pointed out that the law left open ample alternative channels for communication. "The statute does not prevent individuals from publicizing their message or presenting their views...Protestors and leaflet distributors are free to picket and spread their message on the sidewalks and areas near the houses of worship when services are being conducted, and when services are not being held...The statute places fewer obstacles to protesters than other statutes found not to offend the exercise of free speech."
Webber's decision was not surprising, since he had denied last September a request for a preliminary injunction staying enforcement of the law. At the time he determined that the "statute's restrictions are not a regulation of speech, but rather of the places where speech may occur and the manner of its conveyance."
The House of Worship Protection Act was enacted as a response to a tactic employed in recent years by social activists such as the homosexual rights and anti-war movements. Under that strategy, activists peacefully infiltrate a church sanctuary, and once a service has started, engage in a boisterous, bullying, and often profane protest in support of their social viewpoints. Bible-believing churches have been a target for such protests because of their defense of traditional marriage and the traditional family.
The law was sponsored by former Senate President Pro Tem Rob Mayer, and was approved by overwhelming majorities in both the Missouri House and Senate. Former State Representative Shane Schoeller, who sponsored a companion bill in the House, played a key role in its passage in that chamber. We are grateful to them and all Missouri legislators who helped enact this important measure to safeguard the integrity of worship services and the security of houses of worship in the state of Missouri.
The Missouri Family Policy Council developed the language of the House of Worship Protection Act in consultation with the Alliance Defending Freedom. We are grateful to Attorney General Chris Koster and Assistant Attorney General J. Andrew Hirth for their defense of this important statute.
Missourians who value the practice of their faith should be able to worship God freely in their houses of worship without fear of intimidation or harassment in the sanctuary of their own churches. We thank God for Judge Webber's decision which helps ensure that the hostile efforts of those who would deny others the free exercise of their religion will be met with the force of law.