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When notoriously antigay Kansas preacher Fred Phelps's clan picketed Matthew Shepard's funeral, we were angry and deeply offended. But we recognized that Phelps was exercising his constitutional right of free speech. After all, it's that same right that makes it possible for us to fight loudly for equality.
That's why we must now come to Phelps's defense against a patently unconstitutional new law. The Respect for America's Fallen Heroes Act, signed by President Bush on May 29, forbids protests near any military funeral. Violators risk fines of up to $100,000 and prison sentences of up to a year. It's designed specifically to shut up Phelps's "God Hates Fags" brigade, which has been showing up at services for fallen Iraqi veterans, shouting that the soldiers' deaths are "God's punishment for America's acceptance of homosexuality." Appalling? Grievously. Good for the gays because it exposes the raw hatred behind most homophobia? Maybe. Protected by the U.S. Constitution? Absolutely.
Let us be clear: Phelps is scum. But defending freedom can make for strange bedfellows. In 2001 a member of the KKK came to the defense of a gay group in South Dakota seeking an "adopt-a-highway" sign after the Klan was denied a similar sign in Missouri. And former Georgia congressman Bob Barr, who authored the antigay Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, has since joined gay advocates in fighting against Bush's precious Marriage Protection Amendment, because it would trample states' rights.
Allowing hate speech in public forums is one cost of the freedom Mr. Bush claims he's sending soldiers to Iraq and Afghanistan to die for. There are, after all, effective ways to counter verbal cruelty without tearing up the Constitution. Matthew Shepard's friends blocked Phelps's ugliness with white sheets shaped into angel wings. At the military funerals Phelps targets, a band of bikers has been forming their own blockades.
Like the marriage amendment, the Fallen Heroes Act is pure political hypocrisy: Neither Congress nor President Bush ever bothered to complain about Phelps's evil when it targeted gay Americans or people with AIDS. If this law is allowed to stand, how long will it be before politicians courting right-wing voters in an election year decide that gay rights demonstrations must also be stopped because they are "upsetting innocent Christians"?
We'd rather stand with Phelps, shouting back at him, than risk being silenced ourselves.