Fourteen years after Fred Phelps began picketing funerals, federal legislators have introduced bills that would make these protests a felony.
At least, some of them.
Phelps, founder of Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., preaches a radical anti-gay message best captured by his slogan “God Hates Fags.”
He began by picketing funerals of AIDS victims, and gained national attention by picketing the funeral of Matthew Shepherd, a Wyoming college student murdered because he was gay.
Phelps also picketed President Bill Clinton’s mother’s funeral, to protest Clinton’s support for gay rights.
In the last year, his church began picketing soldiers’ funerals, and that’s what’s inspired legislators to act.
The soldiers who were killed in Iraq weren’t gay, but the church members say the rising death toll is a sign of God’s displeasure with America because of its tolerance for gays.
Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., said this week he plans to introduce a bill that would prohibit protests at national cemeteries for an hour before or after a service, and require protesters be 500 feet from the gravesite.
Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., announced Wednesday that he’s introducing “Dignity for Military Funerals Act,” which would prohibit protests at funerals of those who died while on active duty in the military. The protesters would be barred from an hour before to an hour after the service, and have to be 300 feet from the funeral.
Peggy Jo Hammond, whose son PFC Jonathan Pfender died in Iraq, had a visit from the Westboro Baptist Church protesters during his funeral in Evansville, Ind., in January. Patriot Guard motorcyclists blocked the protesters from view. There were so many people there, she didn’t even know where the protestors were standing, she said. She’s relieved she didn’t have to see them.
“That would’ve been kind of unbearable,” she said.
Hammond said she’s delighted by Bayh’s bill, and said hearing about it was “probably some of the best news I had since my son died. It put some happiness right back into my soul.”
Hammond said she can’t understand why the church is bringing its anti-gay message to the funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq. She said her son didn’t care at all what categories his fellow soldiers were, “gay, black, Hispanic,” because they were all there for the same cause.
Bayh said in a statement: “Our troops are among the most selfless and idealistic people I have met, and they should be buried with the dignity they have earned. They represent America at its finest. These protesters represent the worst.”
The American Civil Liberties Union said the Rogers bill, because it only limits expression in cemeteries, has no First Amendment conflict. Cemeteries are not a public forum, said Marv Johnson, ACLU legislative counsel. But Bayh’s bill, which would also apply to public sidewalks outside churches, could be a problem.
“The devil’s in the details,” Johnson said. He said the ACLU has opposed some of the state laws along these lines that have recently passed. They have not filed any challenges to them, Johnson said.
The ACLU believes the best way to counter these protests is by hiding the protesters. At Shepherd’s funeral, it was done by a line of people wearing angel’s wings. At military funerals, motorcyclists have formed phalanxes and have drowned out chants with the roar of their engines.
“While we certainly do not agree with Mr. Phelps’ speech and find it abhorrent, the remedy for bad speech is more, and better speech,” he said.