Kansas Church Uses Funerals for Anti-Gay Protests

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As Atlanta readies for Coretta Scott King's funeral Tuesday, police brace for Fred Phelps and members of his Kansas church. Phelps has exploited funerals for virulent, anti-gay protests. The controversial preacher says state efforts to neutralize his protests violate his First Amendment rights. Frank Morris of member station KCUR reports.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

There will be some unwelcome guests tomorrow outside the funeral of Coretta Scott King. Fred Phelps and members of his Westboro Baptist Church, will be there staging an anti-homosexual protest.

Phelps and his followers have made names for themselves by staging anti-gay protests at public events including funerals of members of the military. Now, lawmakers in more than a dozen states are taking steps to limit the demonstrations. Phelps says those measures would take away his First Amendment rights.

Frank Morris, of member station KCUR, reports.

FRANK MORRIS reporting:

Members of the Westboro Baptist Church began picketing the funerals of AIDS victims fifteen years ago. The group's 76-year-old leader, Fred Phelps, flanked by rows of file cabinets in his small, nearly windowless church, claims to have staged more than 25,000 protests; from Topeka to ground zero in New York, to the funerals of coal miners killed in West Virginia.

Mr. FRED PHELPS (Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas): That's my job, man, to cause this evil country to know her abominations. And furthermore, to cry aloud and spare not and lift up my voice like a trumpet and show my people their transgressions.

MORRIS: The transgression, Phelps says, is acceptance of homosexuals. He preaches God is furious because of that, and will destroy the United States unless sodomy is made a capital offense.

Until recently, most news organizations in Kansas and elsewhere ignored the protests as a matter of policy. But last fall, Fred Phelps hit on a powerful new platform from which to spread his message; the funerals of soldiers and marines killed in Iraq.

(Soundbite of Rebecca Phelps singing to proclaim the church's anti-gay message)

MORRIS: Rebecca Phelps, one of Phelps's 13 children, sings while a dozen school-aged picketers hold up inflammatory anti-gay signs and kick an American flag around into the weeds.

Phelps's expanded family forms the nucleus of this small organization. Today they're in Tonganoxie, Kansas, picketing the memorial service of Army Specialist Lucas Frantz, a soldier shot dead in Iraq on his 22nd birthday. These funeral protests have sparked much broader indignation than the group's earlier efforts, even giving rise to a motorcycle club formed specifically to counter them.

(Soundbite of motorcycle engines revving up)

MORRIS: A couple hundred bikers, mainly Vietnam veterans, clad completely in black leather and covered with military insignias are facing off today against the picketers. A regular at these events, Kenton Bann (ph), says he's been watching Fred Phelps's protests for years.

Mr. KENTON BANN (Veteran, biker): Everything that they have ever preached, everything that they have ever done, has spoken to hatred, intolerance, and I believe that we need to make a stand.

MORRIS: After seeing media coverage of picketers waving offensive signs at military funerals, legislators in states as diverse as Nebraska, Illinois, Oklahoma, and Kentucky, drafted legislation to ban protests near funerals. In Wisconsin, the state senate has unanimously passed a measure on to the governor, who's promised to sign it. The bill in Kansas would push protestors back at least the length of a football field from a memorial service of any kind, for an hour before, during, or after the ceremony.

Supporters say it's aimed at shielding people like 24-year old Brandy Socco (ph), a mother of two, who lost her husband, Dominic (ph), in Iraq last November, and then had to brave a protest at his funeral.

Mrs. BRANDY SOCCO (Military widow): And they were yelling, Brandy, your husband's in hell. God hates you. God hates Dominic.

MORRIS: Speaking at a legislative committee hearing last week, the room packed with bikers, reporters, and sympathetic politicians, Socco said protesters from Phelps's church are exploiting the freedom of speech that she believes her husband died fighting for.

Mrs. SOCCO: They choose to abuse these rights by harassment of a grieving wife and family. Such a lack of common decency should be protected by law.

MORRIS: But some constitutional scholars reluctantly support Phelps' right to protest at high profile funerals.

Professor Ted Frederickson, who teaches First Amendment courses at the University of Kansas, calls Phelps the state wart, but says the man has the right to be wrong.

Professor TED FREDERICKSON (University of Kansas): I will admit that his message is cruel, but the First Amendment forbids government from deciding what messages are acceptable and which ones are not.

MORRIS: Frederickson says laws being crafted to stop Fred Phelps could easily be used to bar activists like Cindy Sheehan from publicly mourning war dead at military funerals. He fears the same principle could be applied to repress unpopular political ideas.

Still, the bills in legislatures across the country are almost certain to pass, and other states may follow. Fred Phelps, for his part, says no law will stop him from spreading his anti-gay message.

For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris.

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