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June 2, 2010

Attorney General Bullock Joins Brief Supporting Families of Fallen Soldiers in Case Against “Funeral Protesters”

HELENA – Attorney General Steve Bullock joined the Attorneys General from 47 other states and the District of Columbia in signing on to a friend-of-the-court brief filed yesterday in support of the case brought by Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder’s family against the Phelps family and the Topeka, Kansas, based Westboro Baptist Church.

“I consider it an honor to be able to stand up for the right of Montana families who have lost sons and daughters in military service to bury their children with dignity,” Bullock said. “I sincerely hope that the U.S. Supreme Court will find that grieving families have a right of privacy that outweighs the rights claimed by people like the Phelps, who use the death of a soldier as a platform to advance their political principles in a particularly hateful way.”

The Montana Legislature passed a funeral picketing law in 2007, after picketers with the Westboro Baptist Church traveled to Montana to protest at the funeral of Marine Cpl. Phillip Baucus, 28, who was killed in a suicide bombing while serving in Iraq in July 2006.

Drafted by Kansas Attorney General Steve Six, the brief argues that state protection of funerals through “funeral picketing or protest laws” and traditional state tort law is constitutional for three reasons: these laws protect the privacy interests of funeral proceedings; the people who attend funerals are a captive audience with First Amendment protections; and the type of targeted picketing used by the Phelpses is a particularly intrusive and harassing form of hate speech.

“It is the solemn right of privacy in one of the most sacred traditions of human civilization that the Phelpses have attacked, denigrated, and violated,” the amicus brief argues. “The Snyder family had but one opportunity to honor and mourn their fallen son, one opportunity to pay their final respects, one opportunity to bury him with solemn dignity in a time-honored tradition that far predates the founding of our country and the adoption of our Constitution. The Snyder family should have been guaranteed their time of mourning in peace, with privacy, tranquility, and dignity.”

“While our Constitution guarantees people like the Phelpses the right to express their opinions, no matter how vile others may find them, the First Amendment allows states to place reasonable restrictions on how and where that expression takes place,” Bullock said.