OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Testimony ended Thursday in a lawsuit challenging Nebraska's law requiring picketers to stay at least 500 feet from funerals.
Attorneys for Topeka-Kansas based Westboro Baptist Church and the state, Omaha Police Department and Douglas County District Attorney's Office completed presenting their evidence after three days of testimony.
The church protests at funerals across the country using anti-gay chants and signs because it believes God is punishing U.S. military members and others for defending a nation that tolerates homosexuality.
The church says the Nebraska law is selectively enforced and unconstitutionally infringes on its free-speech rights. It presented testimony that their members are often kept much farther from funeral services than counter-protesters, who are allowed to get as close as they want.
But attorneys for the state called several witnesses to try to show the law is needed to ensure public safety and prevent emotional harm to families and friends attending funerals.
That included the testimony Thursday of Dr. Scott Bresler, a forensic psychologist at the University of Cincinnati. Bresler said he interviewed 15 people in Nebraska closely related to fallen soldiers whose funerals were picketed by Westboro.
One mother of a slain soldier is haunted by the memory of a child among the picketers carrying a sign that said, "More Toe Tags," Bresler testified.
"She can't get that image out of her mind," he said.
Westboro member and attorney Margie Phelps-Roper countered that the urge to not inflict emotional pain is sometimes outweighed by a sense of duty, using Bresler's testimony in unrelated cases in which he found police officers not fit for duty.
"That may have caused some emotional distress for that person, but you were doing your duty, right?" Phelps-Roper asked. In the same way, she said, Westboro members believe they are following a duty to obey God by picketing at funerals.
She also noted that of the 46 Nebraska funerals Westboro has picketed, none have led to violent outbursts.
The state also called George Vogel, accused of targeting Westboro members at a Marine's 2010 Omaha funeral with bear mace. Vogel, a 67-year-old former Marine, testified Wednesday that he sprayed the mace from his moving vehicle in the hope of making picketers "go away." The mace hit no Westboro members, but others in the crowd. He was fined $300 for misdemeanor assault and ordered to take anger management classes.
"I was feeling anger ... and resentment for their total disregard for the family and what they were going through," Vogel said. "For anybody to denigrate his sacrifice and his family's sacrifice ... makes me very upset."
Attorneys did not make closing arguments in the non-jury trial. Instead, each side will submit closing arguments in documents to the court over the next three months. U.S. District Judge Laurie Smith Camp will decide the case sometime after that.