Senate panel endorses message on funeral picketing

? A Senate committee wants to send a strong message that the Rev. Fred Phelps and his followers who picket funerals of U.S. soldiers don’t represent how Kansans feel.

A message may be all the Legislature produces against people picketing and protesting funerals, although the Senate last week unanimously passed a bill restricting such activities.

The bill is before House Federal and State Affairs Committee, and Chairman John Edmonds, R-Great Bend, said Wednesday he will decide within the next two weeks whether to schedule a hearing.

Meanwhile, the Senate Federal and State Affairs Committee on Wednesday endorsed a resolution saying the Legislature “condemns in the strongest manner possible the hateful activities of Mr. Phelps and his followers.”

The resolution, which goes to the Senate and has no force of law, also says legislators want the nation to know “that Mr. Phelps and his followers do not reflect the true spirit of the people of Kansas.”

Sponsoring Sen. Karin Brownlee, R-Olathe, called the resolution “a countering statement to Phelps’ actions.”

Senate Majority Leader Derek Schmidt predicted easy passage of the resolution.

“This all gives Kansas a black eye, and we just want to make it clear that the state really is embarrassed by it and objects to it, even if we can’t stop it,” said Schmidt, R-Independence.

In one statement Wednesday, Phelps’ church, Westboro Baptist in Topeka, said the resolution caused him to “dance a little impromptu jig” of joy, adding that he counts the measure as “a badge of honor.”

Phelps and his followers contend that troops killed in combat are God’s vengeance for the U.S. harboring homosexuals. For years, Phelps and members of his independent church made up mainly of family members protested funerals of AIDS victims, but now have shifted to soldiers.

Kansas is among at least 17 states working on legislation this year restricting protest activities around funerals, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The bill doesn’t single out Phelps or his followers, but was prompted by their protests at soldiers’ funerals.

The bill bans picketing and protest marches within 300 feet of a funeral one hour before, during and two hours after the service. Violations would be a misdemeanor. State law says only that it’s illegal to picket “before or about” a funeral service.

To address concerns about encroaching on freedom of speech, the bill exempted zone streets, sidewalks and other public spaces from the buffer zone. It keeps protesters off private property, including where the funeral was being conducted. The bill also makes it a violation if protesters “obstruct or prevent the intended use” of a public area while engaged in picketing or protesting.

Phelps has threatened legal action if the bill becomes law, saying it violates free speech rights and targets his church’s religious beliefs.