The action is another unfavorable reflection on Kansas but perhaps a recent Wisconsin move ultimately will accomplish something positive.
Under a bipartisan bill a group of Wisconsin legislators proposed this week, protesters who gather outside a funeral could face jail time and fines. The measure is designed to stop members of a Topeka-based church who have protested outside the funerals of about 80 soldiers nationwide. Wisconsin has had three such incidents; others have occurred in Topeka and Tonganoxie.
The church led by the Rev. Fred Phelps contends that God is killing American soldiers because the United States accepts homosexuality. The Wisconsin action would prohibit protests within 500 feet of a funeral, wake, interment or memorial service for an hour before and after a ceremony. Protesters who violate the bill's stipulations would face a misdemeanor punishable by up to nine months in jail and a $10,000 fine. A second violation would be a felony offense, punishable by up to 3 1/2 years in prison and $10,000 in fines.
Stern penalties, perhaps, but necessary under the circumstances.
Supporters of the bill say they think it balances mourners' rights of privacy with the right of free speech. "It's unfortunate but necessary we take these steps," said State Sen. Russ Decker.
The office of Gov. Jim Doyle of Wisconsin helped draft the bill. Doyle has attended a number of military funerals as commander-in-chief of the Wisconsin National Guard and says "these families deserve a quiet and respectful space to grieve and pay their final respects."
Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka has about 75 members who figure in a wide range of protest operations. Shirley Phelps-Roper, one in the group, calls the Wisconsin bill unpatriotic, un-American and unconstitutional. She says: "If the state of Wisconsin tries to interfere in our capacity to cause America to know her abominations and to put the cup of the fury and the wrath of God to your lips and make you drink it, then we'll see."
And some think the Rev. Pat Robertson is off his rocker.
One of the sad aspects of this development is that it once again focuses the spotlight on Kansas as a source of far-out people and policies that enhance the image of backwoods mentalities too many already entertain. But undesirable as this may be, if the legislation leads to dealing more firmly and effectively with the likes of the Westboro aberrants, and more states follow suit, something finally might be accomplished toward minimizing the disgusting persistence of the Fred Phelps group.