TOPEKA, Kan. – As legislators struggle with restricting picketing at funerals, the Rev. Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church have expanded their protests from services for dead soldiers to veterans’ hospitals, as well.
Members of the Topeka church were promising to picket Thursday at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., and carry signs that said, “Thank God for maimed soldiers.”
Phelps and his followers believe soldiers’ deaths and serious injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan are God’s punishment for the United States tolerating homosexuality, and they’re promising to protest outside every Veterans’ Administration hospital.
The church’s picketing of soldiers’ funerals has provoked outrage across the nation, prompting legislation in Congress and more than 20 state legislatures. Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Wisconsin have enacted anti-picketing laws this year.
But a proposed law in Phelps’ home state is bogged down in disagreements among legislators over how far they can go without violating protesters’ free speech rights, though both chambers were unanimous in condemning Westboro Baptist’s activities.
Many legislators and Attorney General Phill Kline fear that if the law is too restrictive, church members will challenge it in federal court – and the state will pay thousands of dollars to cover their legal fees.
“I strongly support, in any constitutional fashion possible, shutting this guy’s mouth,” Kline said of Phelps. “What I don’t want to do is have to fund his hatred through legal fees.”
This week, the church said the United States faced “the white-hot wrath of God” for tolerating homosexuality and persecuting Westboro Baptist. The church cited a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2003 striking down a Texas anti-sodomy law as “a fateful line” the nation crossed.
“America’s doom is now irreversible,” the church said in one statement. “All the resources of a Sovereign God are now devoted to cursing this Land of the Sodomite Damned.”
In Kansas, both legislative chambers approved anti-picketing legislation, and negotiators must draft the final version if a bill is to pass.
The House’s version says anybody picketing or protesting a funeral can’t be closer than 300 yards one hour before, during and two hours after the service. It also makes it unlawful to obstruct or prevent the intended uses of public streets and sidewalks or other public space while protesting.
The Senate’s proposal forbids protests within 100 yards of the service for the same period. Senators exempted from the buffer zone streets, sidewalks and other public spaces because the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled those areas are public venues, but the House struck that language.
Shirley Phelps-Roper, a Phelps daughter and attorney, told The Topeka Capital-Journal that she had no qualms about the Senate’s proposal.
And Sen. Pete Brungardt, R-Salina, his chamber’s chief negotiator, said he isn’t willing to give in to the House’s position – even if it means leaving Topeka without a bill. Legislators are taking their annual spring break but plan to reconvene April 26 to wrap up their business.
“I don’t think we’re so married to it that we could accept something we know is unconstitutional,” Brungardt told The Topeka Capital-Journal.
Rep. John Edmonds, R-Great Bend, his chamber’s top negotiator, said a bill needs to be both constitutional and effective.
“I don’t think not having a bill is an option,” he said. “But that’s the only way to stay out of court.”
But Phelps-Roper said passing the House version would lead to a lawsuit. She and other church members have said the state can’t keep them out of reach of their target audience.
“The House version – those chuckleheads – it’s not even close to being constitutional,” she said.
Funeral picketing bill: SB 421.
On the Net:
Kansas Legislature: http://www.kslegislature.org