Legislators in neighboring states this week have taken action to restrict protests at funerals in response to an anti-gay Kansas church that has demonstrated at services for U.S. soldiers killed in the war in Iraq.
Yesterday the Missouri Senate passed legislation that would prohibit picketing or other protest activities in front of any church, cemetery or funeral establishment from one hour before any funeral until one hour after it.
The day before, a Kansas legislator introduced a bill to expand that state's law by setting a specific 300-foot distance for protests at funeral services, with a one-hour ban before the funeral and two hours after the start of the service.
Other states are also considering bills limiting protests at funerals.
The Missouri legislation, SB578, is a response to members of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., who outraged lawmakers and others when they protested and waved anti-military signs at the August funeral service of Spc. Edward Myers, a St. Joseph, Mo., soldier killed in Iraq.
The church and its founder, the Rev. Fred Phelps, contend American soldiers are being killed in Iraq as vengeance from God because the United States harbors gays. The church Phelps leads is not affiliated with a larger denomination and is made up mostly of Phelps' children, grandchildren and in-laws.
Violators of the Missouri bill could be charged with misdemeanors subject to fines and jail times that would increase for second-time offenders.
Senators passed the bill 31-0 yesterday, a day after giving it initial approval by voice vote. The bill, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Charlie Shields, now goes to the House, where a similar bill has been introduced. If signed by the governor, the bill — titled the "Spc. Edward Lee Myers' Law" — would become effective immediately.
"I can't imagine the feelings of the family and friends of Spc. Myers — that they had to endure this protest and the type of hatred that was being spewed by Rev. Phelps and members of his congregation," Shields, R-St. Joseph, said.
One of Phelps' daughters said yesterday that the Missouri proposal would not stop the protesters.
"Our job is to cause America to know her abominations. The First Amendment protects our right to do that. If they interfere with that, we'll sue them," said Shirley Phelps-Roper, an attorney. "They will never stop Westboro Baptist Church from putting the cup of the fury and wrath of God to their lips and making them drink it."
The St. Joseph City Council passed an ordinance last month banning protests "in front of or about any church, cemetery or funeral establishment" within one hour of the service.
Although no Missouri lawmaker has spoken against the bill, some constitutional scholars have questioned its imposition on First Amendment free-speech rights. Defending the bill, Shields said other laws already restrict the time, place or manner of protests affecting such things as abortion clinics and presidential events.
State Sen. Harry Kennedy, D-St. Louis, said the funeral protest "makes my blood boil."
"I just find it really very maddening," said Kennedy, the only senator besides Shields to speak about the bill during Jan. 23 and yesterday's brief discussions on the Senate floor.
Earlier this week in Kansas, state Sen. Jean Schodorf, R-Wichita, introduced a bill setting specific distances and times where people can demonstrate at such services.
"People have the right to bury their family members in peace," said Schodorf. "I find it repugnant that anybody would protest the funeral of a soldier."
Kansas already has a law banning demonstrations at funerals, but the language is so vague that it's hard to enforce, Schodorf said.
"I wanted to make it clear what the law would be," said Schodorf, whose measure was filed with 31 co-sponsors in a chamber where it takes 21 vote to pass a bill.
Kansas Senate Majority Leader Derek Schmidt said he expected the measure — SB 421 — to breeze through the Senate.
"What's got the people's attention was picketing at military funerals. It's just wrong," said Schmidt, R-Independence.
But Phelps-Roper has said that the state faces a lawsuit if legislators enact the proposal because it would interfere with the picketers' right to "cause America to know her abominations." She has said church members have the right to be within the sight and hearing of their target audiences.
On Jan. 23, Phelps announced that his church would protest the funerals of two West Virginia coal miners killed in a fire last week. His followers also protested the memorial service for 12 miners who died earlier this month.
"You can do nothing when a sovereign God determines to visit a state or a nation and punish them in His wrath for their sins," the announcement said.
Schodorf's proposal restricts any protests or demonstrations from being closer than 300 feet from where any funeral or memorial service is conducted, and they can't be within one hour prior to or during the service and two hours after the start of the service.
While prompted by Phelps and members of his church, Schodorf said her bill isn't directed at that group.
"This would pertain to anybody, but yes, there were two funerals in Wichita picketed by the Phelps family," she said.
Schodorf said members of a motorcycle-riding veterans group, Patriot Guard, were at the services to shield the families from picketing by church members. Patriot Guard members also have shown up at other funerals where church members protested.
As for whether the bill violates freedom of speech, Schodorf said, "The people can protest past that point, but we feel the family should be able to bury their dead in peace."