DES MOINES, Iowa — Gov. Tom Vilsack signed a bill yesterday aimed at forcing an anti-gay Kansas church to keep its distance at today's funeral of an Iowa National Guardsman.
The governor enacted the law one day before the Westboro Baptist Church planned to picket at the funeral of Sgt. Daniel Sesker, 22, who was killed this month in Iraq.
The group from Topeka, Kan., and other protesters now must stay at least 500 feet away from any funeral or ceremony at a cemetery.
"I have spoken to the Iowa families of fallen soldiers and have become intimately aware of the heartbreak they endure," Vilsack said in yesterday's statement, which was issued while on a visit to the Middle East.
"These protesters don't reflect Iowa values, and their actions have no place in our state."
The church group, which claims that God is killing U.S. soldiers who fight for a country that tolerates homosexuality, has prompted more than two dozen states to consider laws that would keep protesters away from military funerals.
The group has traveled to military funerals for more than a year, waving placards and chanting offensive slogans.
Iowa's new law, which is effective immediately, requires protesters to keep their distance at funerals and imposes escalating punishments for violations. A first offense is a simple misdemeanor, punishable with no more than 30 days in jail and up to $500 in fines. A third offense or more is a felony, punishable by up to five years in prison and fines up to $7,500.
Legislative leaders yesterday denounced today's planned protest as disrespectful and a disgrace.
"They shouldn't be in a position where they are disrupting and adding further grief to family members who have gone through a horrible loss," said state Sen. Steve Warnstadt, D-Sioux City, an Iowa National Guard lieutenant colonel.
The church issued a statement yesterday critical of the Legislature for passing the law, saying protesters also planned to picket the "ignominious, Bible-dumb, pandering demagogic Iowa Legislature."
Sesker's funeral was scheduled for this morning at Ogden High School. A spokeswoman for Westboro Baptist told The Des Moines Register that the law would not keep its members from coming to Iowa, but they would honor the distance requirement.