The war was over for Army Sgt. Matthew Hunter, but at his memorial service in West Alexander, Washington County, a battle between cherished rights and hallowed rites spilled into Pennsylvania.
During the Feb. 5 service for Hunter, a West Virginia native who died in Iraq when a roadside bomb exploded, a knot of eight protesters gathered across the street, thanking God for his and other U.S. soldiers’ deaths.
Members of the Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church travel to funerals and other events across the country, claiming the nation’s tragedies are the result of permissive attitudes toward homosexuality.
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About 20 states, including Pennsylvania, are working to pass laws banning at least some of their protests. State Sen. John Pippy, R-Moon, said he will introduce such a bill today to complement a House bill introduced two weeks ago.
“We tried to put together language that, one, would protect the families’ right to mourn, and, two, would stand up to a court challenge,” said Pippy. The bill bans protests within 500 feet of a funeral, from one hour before the service to one hour afterward.
The Kansas church is relatively small, with about 75 members, 80 percent of whom are related by blood or marriage, said Shirley Phelps-Roper, daughter of the founder and an attorney for the group. Most of the protests include only a few church members, according to published reports.
The Constitution, however, doesn’t have a minimum membership requirement for free speech rights, said Robert Richards, founding co-director of the Pennsylvania First Amendment Center in State College.
“The First Amendment exists to protect unpopular opinions. You don’t need it to protect the majority viewpoint,” Richards said. “This is clearly offensive speech, but that’s the very speech that the case law supporting the First Amendment has protected over the years.”
Church members have protested at least two funerals for Pennsylvania soldiers and rallied on the Capitol steps earlier this month, when state Rep. Jennifer Mann, D-Lehigh, announced the House bill restricting funeral protests. Elsewhere, they’ve brought their message to the funerals of West Virginia miners killed in the Sago Mine in January, and the Feb. 7 funeral of Coretta Scott King.
Protesters carry provocative signs with hateful slogans and stick figures having sex.
But they don’t get close to grieving families, Phelps-Roper said.
“The Pennsylvania Taliban is getting busy because they hate some words on some signs on a public street,” Phelps-Roper said. “We are never on the lap of the families. … Our job is to cause America to know her abominations.”
Protecting constitutional rights and preserving the dignity of memorial services for fallen soldiers is a delicate balance, Pippy said. It’s made all the more difficult by speech that appears designed to ignite tempers, he said.
Ken Marx, 64, of Trafford, Westmoreland County, nearly lost his temper more than once. A member of the veterans motorcycle group Rolling Thunder, Marx and others go to soldiers’ funerals and stand with their backs to the protesters, so the families don’t have to see or hear them.
“In West Alexander, there was a woman standing behind me, screaming ‘The faggot, murdering soldier got just what he deserved,’ ” said Marx, who served in the Pennsylvania Army National Guard from 1962 to 1968.
Marx said he supports the state bills, but wrestles with free speech concerns.
“Those of us who’ve put on a uniform, who’ve served in any capacity, we understand the price of freedom. We swore to uphold the Constitution,” Marx said. “When we have to ask for laws to be passed to protect the dignity of a funeral, it hurts us more than anybody.”