Phelps group explains absence, vows lawsuit over letter
A funeral and graveside service for a slain Missouri soldier took place today, with only respectful, flag-waving spectators in attendance.
Notably absent was a group of Kansas protesters who said they would picket the funeral in defiance of a recently passed Missouri law that bans funeral protests.
Army Pfc. Christopher L. Marion was killed last week by a roadside bomb in Iraq.
His graveside service ended shortly before 3 p.m. Gray skies and light rain gave way to sunshine just in time for the graveside service at Jane Cemetery in Jane, Mo.
Dozens of people had parked their cars as the funeral procession made its way to the cemetery. Some people got out of their cars and stood at attention in a show of respect. Others held small American flags.
More than 50 law enforcement officers were on hand to deal with any protesters.
A group led by the Rev. Fred Phelps of Topeka, Kan., had pledged to protest at the funeral. The group contends that soldiers who die in Iraq are God’s punishment for the United States’ policy of toleration toward homosexuals.
Shirley Phelps-Roper, an attorney and Phelps’ daughter, said Saturday that a letter the group received Thursday from the McDonald County Prosecuting Attorney made the group’s presence unnecessary.
“We can sue them,” based on the contents of the letter, Phelps-Roper said. “We don’t need to get arrested to do that. … They’re interpreting the law in a way contrary to the way the Supreme Court interpreted the law.”
The Missouri General Assembly passed, and Gov. Matt Blunt signed into law last week a law that prohibits funeral protests anytime from one hour before a funeral takes place until one hour after it concludes.
The law specifically bans picketing and protests “in front of or about” any church, cemetery or funeral establishment. The Supreme Court in the past has interpreted “in front of or about” means directly in front, Phelps-Roper said.
In his letter, Prosecutor Stephen Geeding said “in front of or about” would be interpreted as “any place that is reasonably established as a parking area for funeral attendees,” and would also apply to areas along the route of the funeral procession to and from the cemetery.
“Where are we supposed to be — Kansas City?” Phelps-Roper said. She said the group intends to challenge the law in court.
“They … underscored the vagueness of it,” she said. “They’ve created a problem for themselves.”
Missouri lawmakers acted after the Phelps group protested in August in St. Joseph at the funeral of Spc. Edward Myers. Similar legislation has been under consideration in at least 13 other states.
Law officers on the scene said today that they were prepared to arrest any protesters who might arrive.
Several motorcycle groups from Kansas, Oklahoma, Missouri and Arkansas had been on hand with plans to place themselves as a barrier between protesters and the funeral.