Lawmakers rush to blunt anti-gay church

Temple, USA - Army Pfc. Amy Duerksen was 19 when she died last month in a U.S. military surgical hospital in Baghdad, three days after being shot in an accident. By all the accounts of her family, friends and superiors, she had been a model soldier, an impassioned patriot and a deeply devout Christian.

But none of that mattered to the six members of the Westboro Baptist Church who drove all night from their headquarters in Topeka, Kan., to show up here outside Duerksen's March 17 funeral waving hateful placards.

"You're Going to Hell," read one of the hand-lettered signs. "Fag Vets, God Hates You," read another. "Your Pastor is a Whore," said a third.

"This family got what it deserved for sending their daughter to defend this evil nation," said Elizabeth Phelps, 43, who was leading the small knot of protesters. "They ought to thank us for being here to tell the world the truth."

For nearly a year, members of the virulently anti-gay Westboro Church have been crisscrossing the nation, holding more than 100 similar, confounding protests outside the funerals of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq. By their logic, a wrathful God is punishing America for tolerating homosexuality by killing U.S. soldiers in Iraq. Every funeral, they believe, is a warning from God to repent.

The protests, hurtful as they are to the grieving families of the fallen soldiers, have largely been local, personal affronts staged by a tiny splinter church listed as an extremist group by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League. But now legislators in Illinois and 27 other states, as well as Congress, are rushing to pass laws to restrict the Westboro Church protests outside military funerals, raising sharp constitutional questions about allowable limits on freedom of speech.

`Give them dignity'

"You hear about these protesters, but when you actually see them and hear what they are doing, it is more than protesting," said Rep. Michael Rogers (R-Mich.), who is sponsoring a bill in the House to restrict protests outside national cemeteries. "They are jeering and taunting and harassing these families and it is pretty vile. We have to do something to let these families grieve peaceably and give them dignity."

Most of the proposed laws, which already have been approved in half a dozen states, require picketers to keep back 300 or 500 feet from churches or funeral homes where services are being held, and they limit the protests to an hour before or after the service.

The laws appeal to popular outrage over the Westboro Baptist protests, and they are easy to endorse for politicians eager to show their support for U.S. soldiers fighting in Iraq. But constitutional experts warn that such protest restrictions appear overly broad and are likely to be overturned if challenged in court.

"You can't treat speech as a breach of the peace simply because it offends people," said Eugene Volokh, a UCLA law professor and an authority on the 1st Amendment. "These protests are tremendously offensive and hard to ignore. But ignoring them or counter-protesting is unfortunately the only remedy the 1st Amendment allows."

The U.S. Supreme Court already has ruled, for example, that abortion protesters can be kept no more than 8 feet from patients entering abortion clinics, and Volokh said the courts likely would treat protests outside churches, cemeteries and funeral homes in a similar manner.

Ultimately, legal experts predict, the laws attempting to restrict funeral protests will end up enriching Rev. Fred Phelps, the 76-year-old leader of Westboro Baptist, because of the damages he can win if he prevails in court.

"That's the great irony of these bills--they are going to put the citizens of these states in the position of paying money to Fred Phelps," said Charlie Mitchell, state legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, which is monitoring the funeral-protest laws but has yet to decide whether to intervene with lawsuits.

Lawsuits are precisely what Phelps says he plans--and he relishes the publicity that the laws are bringing to his church.

"All these legislatures and Congress all riled up--you got to love it," Phelps said in a telephone interview. "You can't buy this kind of attention to our message."

According to several watchdog groups, Phelps' church, which is unaffiliated with any mainstream Baptist organizations, has fewer than 100 members; most of them, like Phelps' daughter Elizabeth, are members of his extended family.

Thousands of protests since '91

The group's small membership belies its tenacity. Followers have held thousands of anti-gay protests since 1991, including pickets outside the funerals of gay murder victim Matthew Shepard and President Bill Clinton's mother (to protest Clinton's support for gay rights).

Only last year did Phelps begin to direct his scorn at U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq. But the protests have nothing to do with the sexual preferences of the individual dead soldiers, or the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy toward gays, or even the 3 percent of U.S. service members who are estimated to be homosexual.

All American soldiers are guilty by association, Phelps contends, because they are fighting in the service of the U.S. government.

"You connect the dots," said Phelps, when asked to explain his focus on American military personnel. "This evil nation has taught from the cradle to the grave that it's OK to be gay. Now God is over in Iraq picking off America's kids. They turned America over to fags, now they are coming home in body bags."

Military veterans find Phelps' beliefs abhorrent, and last November veterans' motorcycle groups began showing up at military funerals to oppose the Westboro protesters and show support for the deceased soldiers' families. Calling themselves the Patriot Guard Riders, these motorcycle groups routinely muster hundreds of counter-protesters to wave American flags and stand silently in front of the Westboro picketers to shield grieving families from having to see the ugly signs.

For the Duerksen family, the presence of the Westboro protesters only reaffirmed the sanctity of their daughter's sacrifice, which came only 11 months after she had enlisted.

"Quite honestly, their freedom of speech is exactly what my daughter was in Iraq fighting for," said Amy's father, Maj. Doug Duerksen, an Army chaplain stationed in Maryland. "Theologically, what Phelps believes is a bit of a stretch to me, but that's what America is about. My daughter cherished it so much that she was willing to give her life for it."

Funeral protests on states' agendas

Many states have enacted or are considering legislation regulating protests at funerals, in part as a reaction to a Kansas religious group that has been picketing outside military funerals.


States that have passed them







States considering them