TOPEKA – 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.
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 VA 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 Kansas’ proposed law 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.”