States Banning Picketing at Soldiers’ Funerals
Several states are rushing through laws that would ban protest rallies at funerals.
States are rushing to limit when and where people may protest at funerals — all because of a small Kansas church whose members picket soldiers’ burials, arguing that Americans are dying for a country that harbors homosexuals. During the 1990s, the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., went around picketing the funerals of AIDS victims with protest signs that read, “God Hates Fags.” But politicians began paying more attention recently when church members started showing up at the burials of soldiers and Marines killed in Afghanistan and Iraq. Legislation is being considered in at least 14 states, and several of the bills moving quickly, with backing from legislative leaders and governors.
If they pass, the bills could set up a clash between privacy and free speech rights, and court challenges are almost certain. “We’re not proposing to silence the speech of the Westboro Baptist Church, as offensive as most of us find that,” said Kansas Senate Majority Leader Derek Schmidt, a Republican. Instead, he said, he is trying to achieve a balance that respects “the rights of families to bury their dead in peace.”
The church has about 75 members, most of them belonging to the extended family of Westboro Baptist’s pastor, the Rev. Fred Phelps. The church is an independent congregation that preaches a literal reading of the Bible. Shirley Phelps-Roper, Phelps’ daughter and an attorney for the church, said states cannot interfere with their message that the soldiers were struck down by God because they were fighting for a country that harbors homosexuals and adulterers. Lawmakers are “trying to introduce something that will make them feel better about the holes we’re punching in the facade they live under,” Phelps-Roper said. “If they pass a law that gets in our way, they will be violating the Constitution, and we will sue them for that.”
Among the states considering such measures: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia and Wisconsin. Some of the bills specify noisy, disruptive behavior or signs with “fighting words,” as in Wisconsin. Some bar protests within one or two hours before or after a funeral starts; others specify distances ranging from 10 car lengths to five blocks away; some include both.
The courts have long recognized time, place, and manner restrictions on speech and assembly as perfectly appropriate. Certainly, the right of families to grieve in peace trumps rights of idiots to use their loss for publicity. This is especially true in the case on non-public figures, as soldiers and their families almost always are.