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Worship in the News

Chicago clears way for protests outside houses of worship

Anyone wondering why Elizabeth Taylor’s family insisted on a private memorial for the Hollywood superstar need only turn to Westboro Baptist Church for part of the answer.

Members had threatened to picket outside the funeral as sanctioned by the U.S. Supreme Court a few weeks ago.

There could be similar demonstrations outside houses of worship in Chicago since the city has refused to enforce an ordinance prohibiting protests outside houses of worship during services.

“We had already determined that the ordinance prohibiting protests within a certain distance of churches was unenforceable based on earlier Supreme Court decisions,” said Jennifer Hoyle, a spokeswoman for the city of Chicago’s legal department.

The Supreme Court decision did say protests may be regulated as long as laws are neutral and narrowly tailored.

Questions about the city ordinance arose when Alex Hageli, a suburban lobbyist who regularly protests outside the Illinois headquarters of the Church of Scientology, was cited last fall for violating a city code banning pickets from houses of worship.

The code, drafted years ago, precluded anyone who “pickets or demonstrates on a public way within 150 feet of any church, temple, synagogue or other place of worship while services are being conducted and one-half hour before services are to be conducted and one-half hour after services have been concluded.”

Last year, when protesters showed up outside Church of Scientology of Illinois headquarters at 3011 N. Lincoln Ave., church leaders posted a sign in the window announcing services from 9:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. When protesters scoffed and persisted, church members called the police.

Hoyle said the city declined to press charges against Hageli because there were too many questions about the constitutionality of the ordinance, which was rarely enforced.

Adam Schwartz, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, said the law shouldn’t be on the books in the first place.

Last month, the ACLU went on the offensive for the Gay Liberation Network, a gay rights group that planned a demonstration during a Sunday mass on the sidewalk outside Chicago’s Holy Name Cathedral. The ACLU contacted Chicago Police to make sure protesters wouldn’t be cited or arrested like Hageli had been.

“A sidewalk is a place where people should be allowed to protest,” Schwartz said.

Barbara Blaine, founder and president of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, which has had held numerous protests outside Holy Name Cathedral, said her group never encountered anyone trying to enforce the ordinance. But she said the group rarely demonstrates during mass. They usually distribute leaflets to parishioners coming and going.

“I don’t see where we have a lot of other options with witness or whistleblower potential,” she said. “We frequently hear from other victims when we do the leafleting.”

But she said SNAP is very careful to emphasize they’re not protesting the parishioners who have a right to worship in peace.

“Worshiping in peace means you’re inside your house of worship,” Schwartz said. “What you don’t Westboro have is a right to be free from seeing things you don’t want to see when you walk on the sidewalk in or out of the church.”

Hageli said he was relieved by the city’s decision, but wonders why he didn’t receive a response when he challenged the ordinance in the same manner as the ACLU.

He hopes police don’t appear when he and other opponents of Scientology stand outside the church’s headquarters on April 9.

What do you think? Do demonstrators have a right to protest before, during and after religious services? Or do worshipers have a right to come and go and worship in peace?


March 30, 2011


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