DETROIT -- A federal judge declared part of Michigan's hastily enacted funeral protest law unconstitutional Thursday, saying the ban on conduct that would "adversely affect" a funeral, memorial service, viewing or procession is too vague for police to enforce.
But U.S. District Judge Thomas Ludington left intact provisions of the law that prohibit loud and raucous noise and statements and gestures that would cause a reasonable person to feel intimidated, threatened or harassed. He also left in place a ban on such conduct within 500 feet of a funeral or related activity.
The decision was a victory for Army veteran Lewis Lowden , 66, of Gratiot County, who with his late wife, Jean, was pulled out of a funeral procession in Clare County in 2007 for a fallen soldier they had helped raise. A deputy sheriff stopped them because they had anti-government protest signs in the windows of their van.
The couple was arrested and jailed overnight, but the charges of carrying concealed weapons in their van -- a hatchet, machete and two knives they used for camping -- were dropped after the soldier's family protested. The Lowdens sued, saying Clare County and sheriff's deputies had violated their constitutional rights.
"It's a complete vindication of Lewis and Jean Lowden," said Detroit attorney Hugh "Buck" Davis, who represented the family with the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan.
He said they were humiliated for simply trying to attend a funeral. Lowden could not be reached for comment.
The Michigan attorney general's office, which had tried to get the suit dismissed, also declared victory.
"This is a victory for protecting the sanctity of funerals and the privacy of families who have suffered a tragic loss," said spokesman John Sellek, saying Ludington's decision struck two words -- "adversely affect" -- from the statute. "The law essentially remains in place."
Thursday's decision dismissed Clare County from the suit. Ludington said there was no evidence the county had a formal policy of enforcing the law. But the former deputy who arrested the Lowdens, Lawrence Kahsin, remains a defendant. The suit against him will proceed to damages.
The county's lawyer, Jason Kolkema, said the county must decide whether to appeal the ruling.
The Legislature quickly enacted the law in 2006 in response to the Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church, which gained notoriety by protesting at military funerals with signs bearing messages such as, "Thank God for dead soldiers." It said God is punishing the U.S. for tolerating homosexuality. Michigan is one of more than 40 states that passed such laws.
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