By Kari Lydersen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 30, 2006
CHICAGO -- At least five Midwestern states are considering legislation to ban protests at funerals in response to demonstrations by the Rev. Fred Phelps and members of his Topeka, Kan.-based Westboro Baptist Church, who have been protesting at funerals of Iraq war casualties because they say the deaths are God's punishment for U.S. tolerance toward gays.
Though the soldiers were not gay, the protesters say the deaths, as well as Hurricane Katrina, recent mining disasters and other tragedies are God's signs of displeasure. They also protested at the memorial service for the 12 West Virginia miners who died in the Sago Mine.
"The families weren't able to bury their loved ones in peace," said Kansas state Sen. Jean Schodorf, who has proposed legislation. "We felt pretty strongly that we needed to do something about it."
Kansas already has a law banning demonstrations at funerals, but Schodorf said the existing law is vague and hard to enforce. The proposed bill would keep protesters 300 feet away from any funeral or memorial service and ban demonstrations within one hour before or two hours after a service.
Legislators in Illinois, Indiana, Missouri and Oklahoma are looking at similar bills. Proposed legislation in Indiana would keep protesters 500 feet from funerals, and make a violation a felony punishable by a three-year prison term and a $10,000 fine.
State Sen. Anita Bowser said she thinks the demonstrators are hoping to provoke a physical attack so they can file a lawsuit.
"These people are not gainfully employed, so they're waiting for someone to do battle with them so they can go to court and win," said Bowser. "They want a big liability case to pursue. I don't think they actually give a diddly wink about the arguments they're making, but they're clever individuals trying to make a fast buck."
Shirley Phelps-Roper, Phelps's daughter and an attorney for the church, said if legislation passes, the group will challenge it in court. "Whatever they do would be unconstitutional," she said. "These aren't private funerals; these are patriotic pep rallies. Our goal is to call America an abomination, to help the nation connect the dots. You turn this nation over to the fags and our soldiers come home in body bags."
A motorcycle group called the Patriot Guard, made up mostly of veterans, has started attending funerals to act as a buffer between the protesters and family members.
"They'll chant and make snide remarks, they have all these signs that say 'Thank God for dead soldiers,' 'Thank God for body bags,' " said Patriot Guard member Rich "Stretch" Strothman, a Wichita resident. "They'll throw the flag on the floor and wipe their feet on it. . . . We go under request from the families, we're not counter-protesters."
Ed Yohnka, communications director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, said the bills are troubling from a free speech perspective. "We have some concerns about the vagueness of the language," Yohnka said about the proposed Illinois bill. ". . . One of the things that concerns us very much is the degree to which the bill blocks access to people engaged in political expression on public sidewalks. We think a 300-foot bubble is excessive."