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Law Would Ban Phelps Followers From Funerals But Not Gay Protests


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Law Would Ban Phelps Followers From Funerals But Not Gay Protests

by The Associated Press

Posted: October 24, 2005 9:00 pm ET

(Indianapolis, Indiana) A state senator angered over a recent protest at an Indiana soldier's funeral wants to make disorderly conduct a felony offense if it occurs at military funerals.

Sen. Brent Steele, R-Bedford, said he would propose legislation in response to an anti-gay group's protest at the Aug. 28 funeral for Army Staff Sgt. Jeremy Doyle, an Indianapolis native killed in Iraq.

Six members of the Topeka, Kan.-based Westboro Baptist Church dragged U.S. flags on the ground and shouted insults at Doyle's surviving family members outside a mortuary in Martinsville, about 30 miles southwest of Indianapolis.

"No family should have to go through this at a funeral," Steele said.

The Rev. Fred Phelps, the church's founder, contends American soldiers are being killed in Iraq as vengeance from God for protecting a country that harbors gays. The church, which is not affiliated with a larger denomination, is made up mostly of Phelps' children, grandchildren and in-laws.

Phelps and his followers, who engage in anti-gay picketing around the country gained nationwide attention when it protested at the funeral of Matthew Shepard. Recently the group has targeted military funerals in recent months, including one in early August in Portage in northern Indiana.

Some of the group's statements amount to fighting words, according to a letter the Heltonville Area Veterans sent Steele.

"We feel any funeral, especially those of veterans killed in the service of our country, deserves the protection of law," said the letter, which was signed by 20 people.

Steele said he would file a bill seeking to make disorderly conduct a felony punishable by a three-year prison sentence and $10,000 fine if committed during military funerals, be it at the funeral home, during the procession or at the grave site.

Disorderly conduct already is a felony in Indiana if committed at airports or their parking lots, and Steele said the funerals of fallen soldiers deserve the same sanctity.

An Oklahoma lawmaker also plans to file legislation in response to a Westboro protest at a military funeral in his state in July.

That bill would make it unlawful for anyone to engage in any form of protest within 500 feet of any funeral at a home, mortuary, cemetery or church or other place of worship. The bill also would bar protests within two hours before or after a funeral, and the penalty would be a mandatory 30-day jail term.

In 1995, a federal judge threw out a Kansas law that prohibited picketing outside funerals, saying it was too vague. State legislators later enacted a new law that spelled out the time period when such picketing is barred.

Westboro members said they would fight the moves in court.

"You can't turn off First Amendment rights into disorderly conduct of any kind," said Shirley Phelps-Roeper, Pastor Phelps' daughter.

Ken Falk, the Indiana Civil Liberties Union's legal director, said he was not aware of any cases dealing with the constitutionality of funeral protests.

Republican state Rep. Paul Wesselhoft of Oklahoma, a retired U.S. Army chaplain, said he has conducted many military funerals.

"I'm just not going to put up with that in my state," said Wesselhoft, who plans to introduce the Oklahoma bill. "They victimize a family when a family is at its most vulnerable state."

©365Gay.com 2005


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