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Legislation to
ban Phelps's protests becomes law

Legislation to
ban Phelps's protests becomes law

Missouri has become the first to ban protests at military funerals as at least 14 states work to stop the notoriously antigay Kansas preacher Fred Phelps.

In the ongoing battle between the notoriously antigay Kansas preacher Fred Phelps and those who wish to stop him from demonstrating at military funerals, one state this week banned the practice, and another has advanced a bill to do the same. Several others are considering similar legislation that would stop Phelps's clan from picketing the funerals of soldiers, who Phelps says died as a result of God's wrath for the acceptance of homosexuality in America.

On Thursday, Missouri became the first to enact a law banning the protests, drawing an immediate pledge of more protests from Phelps's Kansas church. The bill was signed into law by senate president pro tem Michael Gibbons, who was acting as governor because both Gov. Matt Blunt and Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder are out of the state. The new law bans picketing and protests "in front of or about" any church, cemetery, or funeral establishment from one hour before a funeral until one hour after it ends.

Also on Thursday, the Kansas state senate voted 40-0 for a bill restricting protests within 300 feet of any funeral. The bill goes to the house, where it faces a promising future. The bill didn't go as far as senators wanted in restricting Phelps and his followers, but it got its message across, they said.

During debate, Kansas senators didn't mention Phelps or his Westboro Baptist Church by name but acknowledged the bill was prompted by his activities. "Perhaps the most vulnerable time in a person's life is when they're burying a loved one," said Sen. Jean Schodorf. "I believe we, as Kansans, need to make a statement that we want people to be able to bury their dead in peace."

During committee hearings, Stephen McAllister, University of Kansas Law School professor and constitutional scholar, cautioned that a 300-foot buffer zone in most instances would extend to streets and sidewalks, which courts consider public forum areas. As a result, the bill was reworked to overcome concerns about encroaching on freedom of speech. It exempted from the 300-foot buffer zone streets, sidewalks, and other public spaces. It would keep protesters off private property, including where the funeral was being conducted. "I know there are constitutional problems with taking this farther. I wish it could be 1,000 yards or 1,000 miles," said Sen. David Wysong.

Kansas and Missouri are among 14 states this year working on legislation restricting protest activities around funerals in response to the actions of the Topeka, Kan., Phelps clan. An Oklahoma bill would restrict picketing and demonstrations within 500 feet of a cemetery, church, or home where a funeral or memorial service is being conducted and prohibits protests within two hours before or after a funeral service. It has passed the house and was sent to the senate.

While Missouri and Kansas were taking legislative action, six members of the Westboro church were picketing outside the Anoka, Minn., funeral of a soldier who was killed in Iraq, but a group of bikers organized to counter the pickets got in their way. The 20 men and women who gathered across from the Phelps group are affiliated with the Patriot Guard Riders, a rapidly growing nationwide movement organized to counter that very message.

"We're just trying to show honor and respect for families," said John Lutsch, a St. Cloud resident who heads the Minnesota branch of the Patriot Guard. "I was appalled when I read about these protests, that they'd use a solemn occasion like this as a forum for their views." He was interrupted by Steve Drain, who bellowed across the divide that God hates gays and their enablers and "so, therefore, God hates the U.S. military."

Minnesota is among the states currently considering bans on protests at funerals. (AP)

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