Funeral Protest Ban Targets Anti-Gay Church

Prodded by an increasing number of complaints about anti-gay protests by a Kansas church group, President Bush signs a law banning demonstrators from disrupting military funerals. Leaders of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka believe dead soldiers symbolize God's anger at America's tolerance of homosexuals.

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On this Memorial Day as the country takes note of its war dead, President Bush signed a bill that limits protests at military funerals.

As NPR's Luke Burbank reports the law was created to curb the activities of one anti-gay church from Topeka, Kansas.

LUKE BURBANK reporting:

It was a perfect late spring day as President Bush made his annual visit to Arlington National Cemetery.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: On this Memorial Day we look out on quiet hills and rows of white headstones and we know that we are in the presence of greatness.

BURBANK: And it was no coincidence that the President also chose today to sign into law something called the Respect for America's Fallen Heroes Act. The new law bars any sort of protest within 300 feet of the entrance of a national cemetery and within 150 feet of the cemetery's road for an hour before or after the funeral. The legislation, which sailed through Congress nearly unopposed, was drawn up specifically to thwart the activities of this man and his followers.

Pastor FRED PHELPS (Westboro Baptist Church): They had no business passing a law to try to silence us. If they were faithful to their oaths of office, every last one of them in that demagogue Congress and that demagogue president would look for ways to expand, not limit free speech.

BURBANK: Fred Phelps runs the tiny Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas. For the last 15 or so years, the church, which is comprised mostly of Phelps's extended family, has made a name for itself by showing up at funerals to protest what it says is America's permissive attitude towards homosexuality.

The group used to focus on funerals of people known to be gay, but a few years ago expanded their tactics to military funerals because, they say, God is killing American soldiers in Iraq to send a message. One of those funerals was for Army Sergeant Dominic Sacco, a father of two from Topeka. His widow, Brandy, testified in front of a Kansas State Legislative Committee.

Ms. BRANDY SACCO (Widow of Dominic Sacco): They choose to abuse these rights by harassment of a grieving wife and family. Such a lack of common decency should not be protected by law.

Mr. VINCENT BLASI (Columbia University, University of Virginia): One of the strongest lessons from our past is that the First Amendment is, protects scoundrels.

BURBANK: Vicent Blasi teaches First Amendment law at Columbia University and the University of Virginia. He says as abrasive as the Westboro Church rhetoric is, and it is, most of it we can't actually play on the air, the Respect for America's Fallen Heroes Act is likely too broad to stand up in court.

Mr. BLASI: To have this kind of prophylactic law that prohibits all protests in a very large area, that I think is what makes this a problematic law.

BURBANK: Blasi thinks the Westboro Baptist protestors have a good chance of prevailing in court should they choose to sue, which is exactly what Pastor Fred Phelps says he's planning to do. A number of states have already taken it upon themselves to pass similar laws. Phelps says he'll challenge those laws one by one.

Luke Burbank, NPR News.

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