Counter-protesters Target Westboro Baptist Church

RNS photo by Kellie Kotraba

Taylor Hewlett, 9, watches Josh Flowers and Nathan Rascher put away a flag across from the church. RNS photo by Kellie Kotraba

Thousands of people wearing red shirts gathered in downtown Columbia, Mo., July 21 to honor an Army solider killed recently in Afghanistan—and to fend off Westboro Baptist Church.  

The controversial church, based in Topeka, Kan., had posted fliers around Columbia in advance of the funeral of Army Spc. Sterling Wyatt, who was killed July 11 by an improvised explosive device.   

“These soldiers are dying for the homosexual and other sins of America. God is now America’s enemy, and God Himself is fighting against America," the posters read. "THANK GOD FOR IEDs.”

Monks’ Caskets Suit Heads Back to Court

Wood coffin image, _Lonely_ /

Wood coffin image, _Lonely_ /

A group of Catholic monks who sued for the right to sell handmade caskets will head back to court this week, fending off an appeal from the state funeral industry after a federal judge last year struck down a state law that permitted only licensed funeral directors to sell coffins.

Three members of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will hear arguments June 7 n the case of the monks of St. Joseph Abbey versus Louisiana funeral homes.

The monks wanted to sell handmade cypress caskets that are made at their wood shop without paying the expensive fees and meeting the stringent requirements to obtain certification from the Louisiana Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors. The abbey has said it counts on the casket sales to help finance medical and educational needs for more than 30 monks.

Last July, U.S. District Judge Stanwood R. Duval ruled that the state statute unfairly shielded a funeral industry monopoly to the detriment of consumers.

As Muslim Community Grows, Muslim Funerals Follow Suit

RNS photo by Andrea Useem

Deidre "Nusaybah" Ritchie demonstrates how to prepare Muslim bodies for burial at conference. RNS photo by Andrea Useem

Muslim communities in Kansas City, Columbia and Jefferson City maintain small funeral facilities, often inside mosques, for washing bodies of the deceased. But until now, many Muslims buried their loved ones in Muslim sections of Christian cemeteries, relying largely on non-Muslims to guide them through the process of death.

As the Muslim population of the U.S. has grown -- the number of mosques grew 74 percent in the last 10 years, according to a 2011 survey -- so has the need for Muslim-specific services like funeral homes and cemeteries.

Jay Hardy, the owner of Jay B. Smith Funeral Homes in Maplewood, Mo., and Fenton, Mo., said that in the 1970s, he handled one or two Muslim burials a year. Today that number is up to three or four each week, he said.