Law won’t keep it away from Fort Campbell, says member
Members of controversial Kansas preacher Fred Phelps’ family are returning to Kentucky today, and his daughter says there is nothing the state can do to stop them.
Although Kentucky lawmakers passed legislation this year aimed at preventing funeral protests by the Phelps clan, the politicians botched the job by drafting too weak a statute, said Shirley Phelps-Roper, an attorney and member of Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan.
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“They’re a bunch of incompetent, blundering idiots,” she said. “They accomplished nothing.”
Westboro members have picketed in Kentucky repeatedly in the past year, waving “God Hates America” signs while Kentuckians honored their dead.
About a dozen members of the radical sect are scheduled to protest at Fort Campbell today. They’ll be picketing while the base prepares for a memorial service honoring three fallen Iraqi war veterans, Pfc. Thomas Tucker of Madras, Ore., Pfc. Kristian Menchaca of Houston and Spec. David Babineau of Springfield, Mass.
The new law requires protesters to stay at least 300 feet away from funeral sites. Phelps-Roper said her family has abided by the law in its three visits to Kentucky since the law’s passage. But she added that the anti-picketing zone would have to be much bigger to be effective.
State Rep. Stan Lee, R-Lexington, said the legislature might need to toughen the law.
“If it takes 1,000 feet, if it takes 10,000 feet to keep those wackos away from grieving relatives of the fallen soldiers, that’s what we need to do,” Lee said.
Phelps-Roper said a 10-mile “no-protest” zone might do the job, but she promised that her family would challenge anything it considers restrictive.
“The first time your foolish law gets in our way of putting this cup of God’s wrath up to your lips and making you drink it, we will sue you,” she added.
State Rep. Kathy Stein, D-Lexington, says new anti-Phelps legislation will only give the group more publicity.
“Why give them any more attention?” she asked. “Sooner or later, that group will surely die out and give up if we ignore them.” About 30 states have passed anti-picketing laws aimed at squelching protests, Phelps-Roper said.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky has already filed suit in Frankfort, asking a federal district court judge to invalidate the statute.
ACLU staff attorney Lili Lutgens says the First Amendment protects the right to peaceably assemble — even near funerals, wakes, memorial services and burials.
As long as protesters aren’t disrupting the services, their conduct should not be illegal, she said.
“I imagine there will be thousands and thousands of people who want to protest the Rev. Fred Phelps’ funeral. And so long as they don’t disrupt it, we think they have the right to do that,” Lutgens said. The Phelps clan is large — patriarch Fred Phelps has 13 children and 54 grandchildren. They began protesting outside the funerals of AIDS victims in the early 1990s. In recent years, they have also picketed the burials of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq.
Their list of targets is long and varied. They’ve picketed outside Billy Graham crusades. They’ve rallied against the Southern Baptist Convention. In 2004, they protested outside the funeral of former president Ronald Reagan.
Tragedy draws them like a magnet. They’ve waved their “God Hates America” signs at Ground Zero in New York. They crowed about the death of the space shuttle Columbia crew in 2003, and they threatened to upstage funerals for the 12 dead miners early this year in Sago, W.Va. The Phelpses also picketed in Powell County near Stanton on Dec. 31. Two family members were assaulted during the protest, Phelps-Roper said.