WASHINGTON – Marine Lance Cpl. Kevin Adam Lucas of Greensboro, N.C., will be buried Tuesday with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery. Lucas, 20, was killed while on patrol in Anbar province, Iraq.
And in a scene that has become common at funerals for Iraq war dead, picketers will travel across the country to carry signs saying “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” and “God Hates Fags” in protest nearby.
But for the first time, the picketers from Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., will be restricted by new legislation that limits protests at national cemeteries. President Bush signed the bill into law last week.
Congregation member Margie Phelps said that the new law won’t interfere with the church’s message that “America is doomed” for tolerating homosexuals.
“What people haven’t grasped is, we don’t care what they think,” she said.
The group plans to picket all 122 national cemeteries in upcoming months while abiding by the specific provisions of the law.
Westboro Baptist Church is an independent congregation of roughly 80 members, mostly blood or marriage relatives of 76-year-old pastor Fred Phelps, who founded Westboro in 1955. Margie Phelps is one of Fred’s 13 children.
To spread its anti-gay message, the church has held thousands of protests nationwide, citing Old Testament verses to justify its views.
The church first drew national notoriety in 1998 by picketing the funeral of Matthew Shepard, a gay University of Wyoming student who was murdered in a hate crime.
But the backlash surrounding the military funeral protests – church members say that the Iraq war is God’s punishment for America’s sins – is greater than any of the group’s previous protests.
At least 27 states have passed or are considering laws to restrict picketing at soldiers’ funerals in a direct response to Phelps-led protests. On Memorial Day, Bush signed the Respect for America’s Fallen Heroes Act. It bars protests at national cemeteries within 300 feet of a cemetery’s entrance and within 150 feet of a road into the cemetery from 60 minutes before to 60 minutes after a funeral.
Those violating the act face up to a $100,000 fine and a year in prison. The federal restrictions were limited to national cemeteries for jurisdictional and legal reasons.
The protests also have spawned a counter-group, the Patriot Guard Riders, which was formed in Kansas to assist grieving families and shield them from protesters. Less than a year old, the group now claims 36,000 members nationwide. Virginia riders will be with the Lucas family on Tuesday, though the organization now coordinates with military funerals regardless of whether they’re being picketed.
Said Patriot Guard rider Paul Fischer: “99.9999 percent of the time, the protests are irrelevant. We’re there to show respect and honor.”
But the protests’ increased attention also has raised the potential for violence. Last month, five people in Delaware were arrested for allegedly scuffling with picketers at a military funeral.
And some of the states’ anti-picket laws are being challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union, which also opposes the federal bill.
Meanwhile, Westboro faces its own legal challenges. A York, Pa., father of a Marine killed in Iraq last March filed a federal lawsuit on Monday against Westboro Baptist, seeking more than $75,000 in damages for alleged privacy intrusion and defamation related to the picketing of his son’s funeral.
Margie Phelps called the lawsuit “frivolous.”
She added that the church plans to follow the federal law and keep its distance from the Lucas funeral on Tuesday. Westboro doesn’t need civil disobedience to preach – only attention, she said.
And Westboro has no shortage of that, she noted.
“The press, the Patriot Guard and the president are delivering our message in spite of themselves,” she said.
The Marine’s father, Kevin Lucas, said that the unwanted controversy wouldn’t distract from the service, which follows his son’s wishes.
“He said if anything happened to him, that was where he wanted to be buried,” he said.
As for the protesters, he said, “I think every one of them ought to be arrested.”