FRANKFORT, Ky. — Flanked by National Guard soldiers and veterans of all ages, Gov. Ernie Fletcher signed legislation into law yesterday designed to keep protesters away from military and civilian funerals.
The measure is aimed at members of Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., who have been holding demonstrations at funerals for soldiers killed in Iraq. Carrying signs with slogans such as "God Hates Fags," the protesters claim U.S. soldiers are dying because God is punishing America for tolerating homosexuality.
So far, 27 states have introduced legislation to either ban or curtail funeral protests. Kentucky is one of six states to enact such laws recently. The others are Indiana, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Wisconsin, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
"It's a hard thing to go to a man's funeral and pay your respects when you have people out there shouting obscenities," said Herman Griffin Jr., a member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
The measure requires protesters to stay at least 300 feet away from funerals or memorial services and bars them from using bullhorns. Violators can get up to a year in jail.
The Westboro group has protested in several places in Kentucky, including at the gates of Fort Campbell, home of the Army's 101st Airborne Division. The protesters typically carry signs that read "Thank God for Dead Soldiers" and "Thank God for IEDs," a reference to the improvised explosive devices, or roadside bombs, used by insurgents in Iraq.
State Rep. Mike Weaver, D-Radcliff, a retired Army colonel, called the protests despicable, and sponsored the legislation along with state Sen. Tom Buford, R-Nicholasville.
Sgt. 1st Class Douglas Pollard, a National Guard soldier from Bowling Green, praised the new law, saying it could potentially keep the protesters away from the funeral of one of his friends who was killed in Iraq last week.
Staff Sgt. Brock A. Beery, 30, of White House, Tenn., was killed on March 23 when his armored vehicle encountered an improvised explosive device near Al Habbaniyah, about 80 miles west of Baghdad.
Beery was a member of the Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 2nd Battalion, 123rd Armor, based in Bowling Green. He is survived by his wife, Sara, and a 7-year-old daughter. The location of the funeral hasn't yet been announced, but it may be in Bowling Green.
Pollard said he hopes the protesters don't come to the funeral, but, if they do, he prefers they not be close enough to disrupt the service.
"I would be disappointed in them as Americans, but they have that God-given right in our country to do that.
"I think [the new law] will protect a family that's in mourning," Pollard said.
Pollard said he had attended funeral services targeted by the group last summer. That funeral was for Spc. Michael Ray Hayes of Morgantown, a member of the Kentucky National Guard's 617th Military Police Company, who was killed in an attack by insurgents near Baghdad.
"I felt like it was really an inappropriate time," Pollard said. "Their beef is really not about the war. It's about something totally different."
Veterans have begun stepping forward to shield military families from the protesters at funerals.
The Patriot Guard Riders — mostly veterans and motorcycle club members — showed up yesterday at the funeral of a Fort Campbell soldier killed in Iraq to counter the protests of three members of the Westboro group.
About 250 people were involved in the counterprotest outside the church where funeral services were being conducted for Army Cpl. Nyle Yates III. Yates, a 22-year-old from Lake Odessa, died March 16 in Bayji when he came under small arms fire by enemy forces during combat.