Monday, April 17, 2006

Outrage at Funeral Protests Pushes Lawmakers to Act

The New York Times
Outrage at Funeral Protests Pushes Lawmakers to Act

NASHVILLE, April 11 — As dozens of mourners streamed solemnly into church to bury Cpl. David A. Bass, a fresh-faced 20-year-old marine who was killed in Iraq on April 2, a small clutch of protesters stood across the street on Tuesday, celebrating his violent death.

"Thank God for Dead Soldiers," read one of their placards. "Thank God for I.E.D.'s," read another, a reference to the bombs used to kill service members in the war. To drive home their point — that God is killing soldiers to punish America for condoning homosexuality — members of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., a tiny fundamentalist splinter group, kicked around an American flag and shouted, if someone approached, that the dead soldiers were rotting in hell.

Since last summer, a Westboro contingent, numbering 6 to 20 people, has been showing up at the funerals of soldiers with their telltale placards, chants and tattered American flags. The protests, viewed by many as cruel and unpatriotic, have set off a wave of grass-roots outrage and a flurry of laws seeking to restrict demonstrations at funerals and burials.

"Repugnant, outrageous, despicable, do not adequately describe what I feel they do to these families," said Representative Steve Buyer, an Indiana Republican who is a co-sponsor of a Congressional bill to regulate demonstrations at federal cemeteries. "They have a right to freedom of speech. But someone also has a right to bury a loved one in peace."

In the past few months, nine states, including Oklahoma, Wisconsin and Indiana, have approved laws that restrict demonstrations at a funeral or burial. In addition, 23 state legislatures are getting ready to vote on similar bills, and Congress, which has received thousands of e-mail messages on the issue, expects to take up legislation in May dealing with demonstrations at federal cemeteries.

"I haven't seen something like this," said David L. Hudson Jr., research attorney for the First Amendment Center, referring to the number of state legislatures reacting to the protests. "It's just amazing. It's an emotional issue and not something that is going to get a lot of political opposition."

Most of the state bills and laws have been worded carefully to try to avoid concerns over the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of speech. The laws typically seek to keep demonstrators at a funeral or cemetery 100 to 500 feet from the entrance, depending on the state, and to limit the protests to one hour before and one hour after the funeral.

A few states, including Wisconsin, also seek to bar people from displaying "any visual image that conveys fighting words" within several hundred feet or during the hours of the funeral. The laws or bills do not try to prevent protesters from speaking out.

Constitutional experts say there is some precedent for these kinds of laws. One case in particular, which sought to keep anti-abortion picketers away from a private home, was upheld by the Supreme Court in 1988.

"A funeral home seems high on the list of places where people legitimately could be or should be protected from unwanted messages," said Michael C. Dorf, a constitutional law professor at Columbia University Law School.

The Westboro Baptist Church, led by the Rev. Fred Phelps, is not affiliated with the mainstream Baptist church. It first gained publicity when it picketed the funeral of Matthew Shepard, a gay man who was beaten to death in 1998 in Wyoming.

Over the past decade, the church, which consists almost entirely of 75 of Mr. Phelps's relatives, made its name by demonstrating outside businesses, disaster zones and the funerals of gay people. Late last year, though, it changed tactics and members began showing up at the funerals of troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups, has put it on its watch list.

Embracing a literal translation of the Bible, the church members believe that God strikes down the wicked, chief among them gay men and lesbians and people who fail to strongly condemn homosexuality. God is killing soldiers, they say, because of America's unwillingness to condemn gay people and their lifestyles.

Standing on the roadside outside Corporal Bass's funeral here under a strikingly blue sky, the six protesters, who had flown from Topeka, shook their placards as cars drove past or pulled into the funeral. The 80-year-old wife of Mr. Phelps, slightly stooped but spry and wearing her running shoes, carried a sign that read "Tennessee Taliban." She is often given the task of driving the pickup trucks that ferry church members, a stack of pillows propping her view over the dashboard.

Next to her stood a cluster of Mr. Phelps's great-grandnephews and great-grandnieces, smiling teenagers with sunglasses, digital cameras and cellphones dangling from their pockets and wrists. They carried their own signs, among them, "You're Going to Hell."

Careful not to trespass on private property, the group stood a distance down the hill from the Woodmont Hills Church of Christ. Police cars parked nearby, keeping watch, but mostly making sure no one attacked the protesters.

"God is punishing this nation with a grievous, smiting blow, killing our children, sending them home dead, to help you connect the dots," said Shirley Roper-Phelps, the spokeswoman for the group and one of Mr. Phelps's daughters. "This is a nation that has forgotten God and leads a filthy manner of life."

At the entrance of the church, Jonathan Anstey, 21, one of Corporal Bass's best friends, frowned as he watched the protesters from a distance. Corporal Bass, who joined the Marine Corps after high school, died with six other service members when his 7-ton truck rolled over in a flash flood in Iraq. His family was reeling from grief, Mr. Anstey said.

"It's hurtful and it's taking a lot of willpower not to go down there and stomp their heads in," Mr. Anstey said. "But I know that David is looking down and seeing me, and he would not want to see that."

Disturbed by the protests, a small group of motorcycle riders, some of them Vietnam War veterans, banded together in October to form the Patriot Guard Riders. They now have 22,000 members. Their aim is to form a human shield in front of the protesters so that mourners cannot see them, and when necessary, rev their engines to drown out the shouts of the Westboro group.

The Bass family, desiring a low-key funeral, asked the motorcycle group not to attend.

"It's kind of like, we didn't do it right in the '70s," said Kurt Mayer, the group's spokesman, referring to the treatment of Vietnam veterans. "This is something that America needs to do, step up and do the right thing."

Hundreds of well-wishers have written e-mail messages to members of the motorcycle group, thanking them for their presence at the funerals. State legislatures, too, are reacting swiftly to the protests, and the Westboro group has mostly steered clear of states that have already enacted laws. While Corporal Bass's family was getting ready to bury him, the Tennessee House was preparing to debate a bill making it illegal for protesters to stand within 500 feet of a funeral, burial or memorial service.

The House joined the Senate in approving it unanimously on Thursday, and the bill now awaits the signature of the governor.

"When you have someone who has given the ultimate sacrifice for their country, with a community and the family grieving, I just don't feel it's the appropriate time to be protesting," said State Representative Curtis Johnson, a Republican who was a co-sponsor of the bill.

Ms. Roper-Phelps said the group was now contemplating how best to challenge the newly passed laws. "This hypocritical nation runs around the world touting our freedoms and is now prepared to dismantle the First Amendment," she said. "A piece of me wants to say that is exactly what you deserve."