Sebelius signs funeral picketing bill

Topeka Gov. Kathleen Sebelius on Thursday signed into law a bill restricting funeral protests, which was prompted by the actions of the Rev. Fred Phelps, who has protested nationwide at the funerals of soldiers killed in combat.”That anyone would try to disrupt the funeral of a fallen soldier, or any Kansan, is reprehensible and this law will put a stop to that sort of disgraceful act ,” Sebelius said.Phelps, of Topeka, and his followers protest at soldiers’ funerals saying their deaths are God’s punishment of the U.S. for tolerating homosexuals. Phelps has said the protests are free speech protected by the Constitution.The bill regulates how close protesters can be to services with their placards and picketing.It won’t take effect until the Kansas Supreme Court or a federal court rules that it’s constitutional. Legislators added the provision to lessen concerns that Phelps and his followers would file a legal challenge, win and collect attorney fees from the state.Phelps and his followers have conducted anti-homosexual protests since 1991 but in recent years started showing up at funerals for troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those actions generated outrage throughout the nation. At least 32 states have enacted laws restricting funeral protests, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.Under the Kansas bill, protesters can’t be within 150 feet of a funeral one hour before, during or two hours after the end of the service. Violators would face up to a $1,000 fine and six months in jail. Last year, the House and Senate deadlocked over a final version and nothing passed.It makes it unlawful to obstruct any public street or sidewalk and allows family members to sue if they feel protesters defamed the deceased – an exception to the general rule of law that one cannot libel or slander the dead.But Shirley Phelps-Roper, a daughter of the Rev. Phelps and spokeswoman for his Westboro Baptist Church, predicted the law would have no practical effect on its activities.”They have made a buffer zone, but the buffer zone is smaller than where we stand,” Phelps-Roper said. “As long as we’re not standing in the buffer zone, they can’t lower the boom on us.”She said the group has protested about 250 funerals in the past 21 months in 41 states, and they focus their protest in high-visibility areas, often more than 150 feet away from the funeral site.Sebelius signed the bill surrounded by legislative sponsors and members of the Kansas Patriot Guard, volunteers who ride their motorcycles to block the view of the Phelpses at military funerals.Brandy Sacco of Topeka, whose husband Sgt. Dominic Sacco, was killed in Iraq in 2005, has been urging lawmakers to pass the bill. Her husband’s funeral was picketed by the Phelpses.On Thursday, she took off work as a training nurse to watch Sebelius sign the bill.”I’m ecstatic. Everybody’s hard work paid off,” Sacco said.- Contributed by Scott Rothschild