NASHVILLE, Tennessee As dozens of mourners streamed solemnly into church to bury David Bass, a fresh- faced 20-year-old marine who was killed in Iraq on April 2, six protesters stood across the street celebrating his violent death.
“Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” read one of their placards. “Thank God for IEDs,” read another, a reference to improvised explosive devices.
To drive home their point – that God is killing soldiers to punish the United States for condoning homosexuality – members of a fundamentalist parish in Kansas led by the Reverend Fred Phelps kicked around a U.S. flag and shouted, if someone approached, that the dead soldiers were rotting in hell.
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Phelps first gained publicity when his group picketed the funeral of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student who was found bludgeoned and tied to a fence in Wyoming in 1998. “God Hates Fags” was among the placards Phelps used then.
His congregation, which consists almost entirely of 75 of his relatives, has since staged protests near businesses and in disaster zones in addition to the funerals of gay people. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups, put it on its watch list.
Late last year, Phelps’s group changed tactics. Members began showing up at the funerals of troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Disturbed by the protests, a small group of motorcycle riders, some of them Vietnam War veterans, banded together in October to form the Patriot Guard Riders. Now with 22,000 members, their aim is to form a human shield in front of the protesters so that mourners cannot see them, and when necessary, to rev their motorcycle engines to drown out their shouts.
Hundreds of well-wishers have written e-mail messages to members of the motorcycle group, thanking them for their presence at the funerals.
“It’s kind of like, we didn’t do it right in the ’70s,” said Kurt Mayer, the group’s spokesman, referring to the treatment of Vietnam veterans. “This is something that America needs to do, step up and do the right thing.”
The Bass family, desiring a low-key funeral, asked the motorcycle group not to attend.
Phelps’s protests, viewed by many as cruel and unpatriotic, have also set off a flurry of bills seeking to restrict demonstrations at funerals and burials.
“Repugnant, outrageous, despicable do not adequately describe what I feel they do to these families,” said Representative Steve Buyer, Republican of Indiana, co-sponsor of a bill to regulate demonstrations at federal cemeteries. “They have a right to freedom of speech. But someone also has a right to bury a loved one in peace.”
In the past few months, several states, including Oklahoma, Wisconsin and Indiana, have approved laws that restrict demonstrations at a funeral or burial. In addition, 23 state legislatures are getting ready to vote on similar bills, and Congress, which has received thousands of e-mail messages on the issue, expects to take up legislation in May dealing with demonstrations at federal cemeteries.
“I haven’t seen something like this,” said David Hudson Jr., research attorney for the First Amendment Center, referring to the number of state legislatures reacting to the protests. “It’s just amazing. It’s an emotional issue and not something that is going to get a lot of political opposition.”
Most of the state bills and laws have been worded carefully to try to avoid concerns over the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of speech. The laws or bills do not try to prevent protesters from speaking out.
The laws typically seek to keep demonstrators at a funeral or cemetery 100 to 500 feet, or 30 to 150 meters, from the entrance, depending on the state, and to limit the protests to one hour before and one hour after the funeral. A few states, including Wisconsin, also seek to bar people from displaying “any visual image that conveys fighting words.”
Constitutional experts say there is some precedent for these kinds of laws. One case in particular, which sought to keep anti-abortion picketers away from a private home, was upheld by the Supreme Court in 1988.
“A funeral home seems high on the list of places where people legitimately could be or should be protected from unwanted messages,” said Michael Dorf, a constitutional law professor at Columbia University Law School.
Phelps’s group has mostly steered clear of states that have already enacted laws. As Bass’s family was getting ready to bury him, the Tennessee Legislature was hours away from passing a bill making it illegal for protesters to stand too close to a funeral, burial or memorial service.
“When you have someone who has given the ultimate sacrifice for their country, with a community and the family grieving, I just don’t feel it’s the appropriate time to be protesting,” said state Representative Curtis Johnson, a Republican who co-sponsored the bill.
Phelps’s group is contemplating how best to challenge the newly passed laws.
“This hypocritical nation runs around the world touting our freedoms and is now prepared to dismantle the First Amendment,” said Shirley Roper- Phelps, spokeswoman for the group. “A piece of me wants to say that is exactly what you deserve.”
Standing on the roadside close to Bass’s funeral here under a strikingly blue sky, the six protesters shook their placards as cars drove past or pulled into the funeral.
At the entrance to the church, Jonathan Anstey, 21, one of Bass’s best friends, frowned as he watched the protesters from a distance. Bass, who joined the U.S. Marine Corps after high school, died with six other service members when his seven-ton truck rolled over in a flash flood in Iraq. His family was reeling from grief, Anstey said.
“It’s hurtful, and it’s taking a lot of willpower not to go down there and stomp their heads in,” Anstey said of Phelps’s group. “But I know that David is looking down and seeing me, and he would not want to see that.”