ACLU of Iowa News

ACLU of Iowa Files First Amendment, Religious Freedom Lawsuit in Westboro Baptist Church Flag Desecration Case

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April 19, 2013

The American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa has filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of three members of the controversial Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, to defend their freedom of expression and religion.

The case involves law enforcement officials who persist in enforcing Iowa’s unconstitutional flag desecration statutes. Public demonstrations held by Westboro church members often include dragging the U.S. flag on the ground, air spitting on the flag and other expressive acts designed to convey their belief that the U.S. flag has become an idolatrous symbol representing a country that is at odds with God.

 Ben Stone, executive director of the ACLU of Iowa, said the ACLU filed the lawsuit because “the strength of our democracy requires tolerance of peaceful forms of public expression and religious activities.” Stone said these principles are paramount, even though the ACLU strongly disagrees with the Westboro Baptist Church positions on such topics as LGBT rights.

The lawsuit contends that various Iowa law enforcement officials wrongly ordered Margie Phelps, Elizabeth Phelps, and Timothy Phelps to stop dragging and otherwise treating the U.S. flag disrespectfully at protests in Des Moines, Red Oak, and Council Bluffs. Church demonstrators “will continue to suffer irreparable harm to their personal rights of expression and religious freedom” as a result of law enforcement’s continuing attempts to enforce Iowa’s unconstitutional flag abuse statutes, the lawsuit contends.

Law enforcement officials at those protests cited their duty to enforce Iowa’s flag desecration laws because the laws were “still on the books,” even though those laws were ruled unconstitutional by U.S. Southern District of Iowa Judge Robert Pratt in 2007.

ACLU of Iowa Legal Director Randall Wilson, who is representing the Phelps, said that a class action was needed in this case because the church members actively demonstrate all over Iowa and should not be required to go to court again and again every time a church demonstrator encounters another police officer determined to enforce laws that the legislature should have removed from the books.

“It’s a matter of enforcing good-faith compliance with the Constitution and the decisions of our courts,” Wilson said.  A portion of the Iowa Code cited in the lawsuit (718A.6), specifies that sheriffs and chiefs of police in Iowa can be removed from their office for failure to enforce Iowa’s flag desecration law.

The lawsuit does not seek money.

To view the complaint, with more details about the case, click here.

5 Comments

  1. Barry Corson says:

    I am a long time ACLU member and I resent spending our precious resources on an organization that tries to impose their religious beliefs on the rest of us, has no human decency, and would trample our basic rights in an instant if it furthered their religious agenda.

  2. Chad says:

    I cannot believe that the ACLU would even consider such a fraudalent cause. First, I wholeheartedly support the free speech of the Westboro Church despite the fact that I diasgree with their agenda. It is critical that we maintain freedom of speech. Second, I respect their right to congregate and worship as they deem fit. However, I have yet to see them produce anything in written form similar to the Bible which would entitle or promote them disrespecting the flag. Will the ACLU be willing to file a countersuit if I file it because I feel that my freedoms are in some way inhibited by the Westboro Church’s desecration of the U.S. flag? Overall I support the initiatives of the ACLU, however, I am incensed that this case was even filed because I think it is nothing more than headline grabbing techniques on the part of the Westboro Church to ensure they are not forgotten. Finally, I suspect the “irreparable harm” caused for the demonstrators is nothing more than hurt feelings because they feel like they are entitled to break the law. ACLU, please screen your caseload more closely and only take on those cases which have merit and substance ot them. This clearly should have been a case which was received and not acted upon.

  3. Tony says:

    Proud to see the ACLU step up. Those who desecrate our flag will always be a twisted lot. Baloney that the police still try to use a statute that all but the incompetent know to be unconstitutional.

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