Military Funeral Protests Outrage Families, Lawmakers

March 15, 2006 — -- They've appeared at military funerals across the country, armed with signs reading "God Hates You" and "Thank God for Dead Soldiers."

Members of Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., have outraged family members and communities alike with their antics. They say America's war casualties are God's wrath for tolerating homosexuality.

Now they're getting their wish for a federal-level fight.

After attending a funeral in Michigan on Saturday where hundreds of veterans and other supporters of the soldier's family countered the protesters, Republican Rep. Mike Rogers plans to introduce legislation against the demonstrations, possibly as soon as Thursday.

It would restrict protests at funerals at national cemeteries for 60 minutes before and after a service, and require protesters to remain 500 feet or more from the grave site or individuals at the funeral.

"American families burying their husbands or wives and sons or daughters who died while fighting for their nation are being subjected to horrible verbal and visual attacks by protesters," said a statement by Rogers, who served as a funeral officer during his own service in the U.S. Army. "No grieving family should be faced with such disrespect or threats and intimidation."

Church Members Welcome Challenge

Shirley Phelps-Roper, a lawyer for the church members and daughter of its leader, the Rev. Fred Phelps, said the group was ready for a First Amendment fight.

"We've been just pining for, so hoping that someone in the United States House or Senate would get busy and get something going to dismantle the First Amendment at the federal level," Phelps-Roper said.

"Little Mr. Mike Rogers does not like some words on some placards on a public street," she said. "He's ready to give away the crowning jewel of all of our freedoms."

Rogers told ABC News that the law would allow freedom of expression while still protecting the soldiers' families.

"I think it clearly passes muster because the Supreme Court has ruled that time, place and manner can be regulated," he said. "You can't regulate their content."

Phelps-Roper said members of the church believed that Americans had turned their backs on God and that Hurricane Katrina, Iraq casualties, STDs, bird flu and other tragedies were God's payback. She said that America had been "duped" into the war, that it was not winnable, and that she blamed the families for sending their loved ones to fight.

The group began protesting soldier funerals in June and has been to about 35 states since then, she said. Members gained attention in the past for protesting at funerals of those who died from AIDS and at the service for Matthew Shepard, the Wyoming college student beaten to death because he was gay.

Protesting the Protests

Several states have passed laws limiting the group's funeral protests, including Indiana, Oklahoma, Missouri and Wisconsin earlier this month. Other states are considering legislation, and Rogers said he was eager for states to use his bill as a model "to make sure they are compliant with First Amendment concerns."

Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, has signed on as co-sponsor of the federal bill, and Rogers has been crafting its language with Steve Buyer, chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs. He expects it to have broad bipartisan support.

"I think we're on very solid legal ground," Rogers said. "It really gives the family the right to mourn and the right to their dignity, and that to me is the most important thing -- and we still have not abridged anyone's First Amendment rights."

Maybe not, but it still could face a challenge. Local chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union have fought against laws in some states that have sought to restrict the Westboro protests.

But Caroline Fredrickson, director of the Washington legislative office of the ACLU, said that the group had not seen Rogers' bill and that it was "watching and waiting" before weighing in.

"What we can say is that typically, if it's the appropriate kind of regulation, as long as it's content-neutral, it doesn't seem to raise First Amendment problems," Fredrickson said.

Jamin Raskin, a professor of constitutional law at American University, said the regulation could spark some debate.

"Arguably, they can't make their point before or after the services," he said. "These guys make the most unsympathetic possible First Amendment plaintiffs, but imagine that it were anti-war protesters who wanted to protest a war that they see as illegal and immoral. Is the effectiveness of their message negated by forcing them to protest either an hour before or an hour after a funeral?"

One case that would be in Rogers' favor is Hill v. Colorado, a 2000 decision that required anti-abortion protesters to stand at least 8 feet away from passers-by at health facilities, Raskin said.

That may not stop Phelps-Roper from waging a fight against the regulation.

"It's appropriate for the whole world to watch while this nation gives away the best and the brightest and the most important of her liberties," she said. "It is the only thing that distinguishes us from the rest of the whole round world."

If the bill becomes law and is challenged, Raskin said, it could have an impact on future free-speech cases.

"It's possible that this case could change the First Amendment by establishing a peaceful funeral and burial as a compelling state interest that overcomes speech rights," he said.

He added that the Westboro group's tactics seem "calculated to offend the maximum number of people. But, of course, under our First Amendment, people have the right to offend."

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