FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. – With upside-down U.S. flags draped around their waists, members of a Kansas church staged a second protest in Kentucky outside Fort Campbell on Wednesday after a flurry of efforts to dissuade them from coming.
Six members of the Westboro Baptist Church held signs, prayed and sang during a brief protest outside Fort Campbell, where a memorial service for U.S. troops recently killed in Iraq was held at dusk.
They stayed only a half hour – until their permit to protest expired – but it was long enough for a group of more than 100 counterprotesters and people driving by to notice.
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“I was advised not to come out here today. But people who stay quiet are just as bad as those who protest” against U.S. soldiers, said Amber Nottingham, a counterprotester whose husband is a member of the 101st Airborne Division serving in Iraq.
Nottingham said over the din of car horns that the protester’s message, which was carried on signs that read “Thank God for IEDs” and “America is doomed,” was hurtful.
Church members, largely the extended family of the Rev. Fred Phelps, have toured the country protesting funerals of U.S. soldiers. They argue soldiers’ deaths are divine punishment for American tolerance of gays. They also protested the funerals of dead coal miners in West Virginia last month and Coretta Scott King’s funeral this week.
Counterprotesters lined the road, held signs that read “You’re not in Kansas anymore,” and yelled profanities as they counted down the minutes until the protest ended.
“Freedom is not free,” said Johnny Williams, 57, a Vietnam veteran from Dayton, Ky., who came to show his support for the troops. “A funeral is not the time to make a statement.”
Church members held an earlier protest on the Kentucky Capitol’s front steps Wednesday, but a group of anti-protesters carrying flags and signs outnumbered them nearly 10-to-1.
“It’s shameful,” shouted American Legion member Tim Flynn, his hands trembling.
Members of the Topeka, Kan.-based church were at the Capitol protesting bills state lawmakers passed on Monday that would limit their protests at funerals and memorial services.
Margie Phelps, an attorney for church who led protests in Frankfort and at Fort Campbell, said the bills brought them to the statehouse.
“You can tell the Kentucky Taliban they can’t pass enough laws to shut us up,” Phelps shouted.
Later, at the Fort Campbell protest, Phelps said the Legislature won’t keep them away.
“We will be back again and often,” she said.
Kentucky’s House and Senate have each passed bills that would limit people from protesting inside 300 feet of a funeral or memorial service. The Senate version, pending in the House, would also keep protesters from being within earshot of grieving friends and family members.
Legislation being considered in at least 14 states also would limit funeral protests.
Capt. Dana Krull, 25, a soldier from the division’s 3rd Brigade “Rakkasans” attended the memorial service inside Fort Campbell. He said the group should have the right to protest, but he questioned why they would want to speak out against the military.
“It’s just ironic,” Krull said after the monthly memorial service. “They’re protesting the very institution that protects their right to protest.”
Associated Press writer Joe Biesk in Frankfort contributed to this report.