Archive for Tuesday, June 6, 2006

Funeral protest law to get first test today

June 6, 2006

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— Marine Lance Cpl. Kevin Adam Lucas of Greensboro, N.C., will be buried today with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery. Lucas, 20, was killed while on patrol in Anbar province, Iraq.

And in a scene that has become common at funerals for Iraq war dead, picketers will travel across the country to carry signs saying "Thank God for Dead Soldiers" and "God Hates Fags" in protest nearby.

But for the first time, the picketers from Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., will be restricted by new legislation that limits protests at national cemeteries. President Bush signed the bill into law last week.

Congregation member Margie Phelps said that the new law won't interfere with the church's message that "America is doomed" for tolerating homosexuals.

"What people haven't grasped is, we don't care what they think," she said.

The group plans to picket all 122 national cemeteries in upcoming months while abiding by the specific provisions of the law.

Westboro Baptist Church is an independent congregation of roughly 80 members, mostly blood or marriage relatives of 76-year-old pastor Fred Phelps, who founded Westboro in 1955. Margie Phelps is one of Fred's 13 children.

To spread its anti-gay message, the church has held thousands of protests nationwide, citing Old Testament verses to justify its views.

The church first drew national notoriety in 1998 by picketing the funeral of Matthew Shepard, a gay University of Wyoming student who was murdered in a hate crime.

But the backlash surrounding the military funeral protests - church members say that the Iraq war is God's punishment for America's sins - is greater than any of the group's previous protests.

At least 27 states have passed or are considering laws to restrict picketing at soldiers' funerals in a direct response to Phelps-led protests. On Memorial Day, Bush signed the Respect for America's Fallen Heroes Act. It bars protests at national cemeteries within 300 feet of a cemetery's entrance and within 150 feet of a road into the cemetery from 60 minutes before to 60 minutes after a funeral.

Those violating the act face up to a $100,000 fine and a year in prison. The federal restrictions were limited to national cemeteries for jurisdictional and legal reasons.

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