OKLAHOMA CITY — After hearing a funeral home manager’s worries about escalating protests by members of a homophobic Kansas church, a state Senate committee on Tuesday passed a bill to restrict demonstrations at funerals.
Ronnie Felts, manager of the Floral Haven Funeral Home in Broken Arrow, said grieving families “deserve to have services for their loved ones in peace.”
After the meeting, Felts said he is concerned that protests conducted by the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, could touch off violence, especially now that counter-protests have sprung up by bikers’ group.
The Topeka church operates a Web site, “godhatesfags.com” and its members often carry signs at funerals of U.S. soldiers killed in Afghanistan and Iraq. Their message is that the soldiers were struck down by God for fighting for a country that tolerates homosexuality.
The church, headed by the Rev. Fred Phelps, a disbarred attorney, isn’t affiliated with mainstream Baptist organizations.
Westboro members, carrying signs that “God Hates Fags” showed up last August outside a Coweta church where services were held for Marine Sgt. James Randolph Graham, who died in combat in Iraq.
Since then, a bikers’ group also has started showing up at funerals, revving up the engines on their motorcycles to drown out comments of Westboro members, Felts said.
Felts said grieving family members going into services are often emotional and he is worried they will say or do something to the protesters, causing “things to get out of hand.”
The bill that cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday makes it a misdemeanor offense to picket within 500 feet of a cemetery, church or mortuary an hour prior to a funeral service and four hours after the start of a service. The bill now will be considered by the full Senate.
Violation of the proposed law would be a misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of up to $500 and up to 30 days of jail time.
Sen. Mary Easley, D-Broken Arrow, said the language will be studied as it goes through the legislative process to make sure it is constitutional.
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