Funeral protest bills are passed 'To slander a soldier's name is wrong'
2/8/2006 Lexington Herald-Leader
FRANKFORT - Kentucky is joining a growing list of states limiting when and where people may protest at funerals -- all because of a small fundamentalist Kansas church whose members picket soldiers' burials and argue that Americans are dying for a country that harbors homosexuals.
The state House and Senate each passed bills yesterday to limit the church's protests to outside a 300-foot buffer zone around funerals and other memorial services. Neither bill had opposition.
The Senate had approved the measure last week, but reconsidered and passed it again yesterday. That version also would keep people from making their protests audible to bereaved family members attending funerals or other services.
During the 1990s, members of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka went around picketing the funerals of AIDS victims with protest signs that read, "God Hates Fags." Recently, they started showing up at the burials of soldiers and Marines killed in Afghanistan and Iraq, and politicians began paying more attention.
"It just stunned me. It was like a sucker punch to my stomach," said Regina Talley, who saw the protests at the funeral of Spec. Michael Ray Hayes of the Kentucky National Guard's 617th Military Police Co. The funeral was in Bowling Green.
Talley, a family-support group leader for that company, attended Hayes' funeral last summer. Her son, Sgt. Jon Ray, 31, is also a member of the 617th, she said.
"I was going, 'What is that and what are they doing?'"
The protesters say their message is not against the war. Church members -- largely the extended family of the Rev. Fred Phelps -- see the soldiers' deaths as a sign that God is punishing the nation for tolerating gays. They also went to West Virginia last month to protest at the funeral of coal miners.
They often carry signs that read such things as, "Thank God for IEDs," referring to improvised explosive devices used by insurgents.
"To slander a soldier's name is wrong and it's not covered under the Constitution," said Talley, of Nashville. "They have no respect for the family members at all."
Legislation is being considered in at least 14 states, and several of the bills are moving quickly, with backing from legislative leaders and governors.
Last week, Gov. Ernie Fletcher's spokeswoman Jodi Whitaker said Fletcher supported the proposal.
Kentucky lawmakers were trying to expedite the bill through the legislature and get it signed into law before an expected protest at a Fort Campbell memorial service on Wednesday. However, Rep. Mike Weaver, the bill's House sponsor, said it would not affect the memorial service because the post is a federal installation.
Weaver, D-Elizabethtown, said he is also pushing a resolution urging Congress to address the matter at federal locations.
The church group has announced it would protest at the funeral of Scott Messer, an Army soldier from Ashland killed in Iraq last week.
The bill would prohibit demonstrators from "making unreasonable noise" or making "any utterance, gesture or display designed to outrage" people attending funerals or memorials services. Violations would be misdemeanors.
In a telephone interview, Phelps said such laws are unconstitutional and the church was still planning its protest for Wednesday.
"The amazing thing going on here is that this nation is manifesting a willingness to trash, absolutely trash, the thing that makes it distinctive and glorious. And that's the First Amendment," Phelps said. "They would gladly repeal it to stop our message."