An anti-gay group that spews hate and homophobic propaganda has taken protest to a new low – staging photo op demonstrations at funerals for soldiers killed in Iraq.
Waving signs with slogans like “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” and “God Hates Faqs,” the group from Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, has appeared at funerals for slain soldiers in Missouri and Illinois recently, spouting their homophobic bile and disrupting what should be a solemn moment for a grieving family.
Led by the Rev. Fred Phelps, a hate-spouting firebrand, the group has protested funerals of homosexuals for the past 15 years but have expanded their activities in recent months to the services of fallen shoulders, appearing at some 70 ceremonies in recent months even though there is no indication the soldiers being buried are gay.
“Our view of this situation is that God Almighty blew these kids to smithereens and sent them to hell,” claims the 76-year-old Phelps, who says God is punishing “a fag army – don’t ask, don’t tell – for a fag-loving agenda of a fag-loving nation,”
The protests have sparked proposals of legislation to limit such protests and a backlash from some who have confused the actions of the anti-way group with those who protest the Iraq war.
Missouri Senate Majority Leader Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, has proposed legislation that would ban protesting “in front of or about any church, cemetery or funeral establishments.”
In Illinois, Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn has proposed prohibiting such picketing from within 300 feet a half-hour before to a half-hour after any funeral.
“Those last moments a family has with their son, those ought to be opportunities that aren’t interfered with, that aren’t harassed, that aren’t destroyed and disrupted by a group that is seeking to do exactly that, to be cruel,” says Quinn, who attends funerals Illinois soldiers.
In November, Jesse Alcozer of Elmhurst, Illinois, buried his son, Christopher Alcozar, a 21-year-old Army infantryman, while a half-dozen of Phelps’ protesters chanted across the street and waved their signs.
:”It was bad enough that I got harassed after I got out of Vietnam,” Alcozer said. “But after 37 years of trying to get rid of this wound, they are doing this to my son.”
Constitutional law experts say attempts to limit protests may be a First Amendment case that could eventually wind up in the courts. While the courts have upheld some laws that limit protests at private family funerals, services for fallen military personnel as more public events.
“If you are going to allow activity that is public in nature, then it becomes very, very difficult to limit protest activity outside,” said Charles Davis, executive director of the University of Missouri’s Freedom of Information Coalition. “While my heart grieves for people that are in that situation, I don’t think you should limit speech.”
Ed Yohnka of the American Civil Liberties Union in Chicago agrees:
“It’s obviously hard to make a final determination, but the point of having freedom of speech is to protect the speech we find most objectionable,” Yohnka says.