LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Disturbed by anti-gay protests at military burials by members of a Kansas church, a Nebraska lawmaker wants to limit how close such demonstrators can be to a funeral service.
The Rev. Fred Phelps, founder of Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., contends that American soldiers are being killed in Iraq as vengeance from God for protecting a country that harbors gays. And church members have protested at the funerals of scores of military personnel killed in the war.
“That to me seems a little bit … unfortunate, to say the least,” said Sen. Mike Friend of Omaha, who introduced a bill (LB773) Wednesday that would make it illegal to picket within 100 feet of any part of a funeral service.
“Common sense would dictate that if anyone would have the crazy idea of picketing at somebody’s funeral, that there should be some boundaries associated with that,” Friend said. “We don’t want to infringe on anybody’s free-speech rights.
“But … to avoid confrontation, to avoid the types of things that could happen in a situation like that, you put a distance requirement between those types of protesters and people that are mourning at a funeral,” Friend said.
Similar measures have been introduced elsewhere, including Missouri, Indiana and Oklahoma.
Phelps’ church is not affiliated with a larger denomination and is made up mostly of his children, grandchildren and in-laws.
In August, church members brought their anti-gay message to the funerals of two Tennessee soldiers killed in Iraq. The church members carried signs and shouted things such as “God hates fags” and “God hates you.”
The church members were met with scorn from local residents. They chased the church members cars’ down a highway, waving flags and screaming “God bless America.”
There was no answer at the church Wednesday.
Phelps’ daughter, Shirley Phelps-Roper, who also serves as the church’s attorney, said such laws cannot stop church members from protesting.
“As long as these states want to pass some feel-good measure to make it seem like they are doing something to get even with us, I don’t care — as long as they do not interfere,” she said. “Our job is to cause America to know her abominations.”
She stressed that the protests have not occurred during the actual funeral services.
“We are never there when a funeral is going on,” she said. “If the funeral is going to start at 10 o’clock, we picket and 9:15 or 9:30 and that’s it.
“We’re only there to deliver a message,” she said. “Look, if God is punishing America, and his IEDs (improvised explosive devices) blowing the troops to pieces in a foreign land is the weapon of choice, our forum of choice has got to be these funerals.”