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Archive for Saturday, May 6, 2006

House rejects compromise bill on funeral picketing

May 6, 2006

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— Compromise legislation prompted by the Rev. Fred Phelps and his followers protesting at funerals of troops killed in combat was rejected Friday by the House at the urging of Speaker Doug Mays, who said it wasn't tough enough.

On a voice vote, members returned the bill to the House-Senate conference committee to come up with stronger language. But Sen. Pete Brungardt, its chairman, said he isn't rushing to reconsider the bill.

"I have no interest in serving up something that's unconstitutional and gets thrown out," said Brungardt, R-Salina.

The bill restricts protests to no closer than 500 feet to a funeral. But it exempts streets, sidewalks and other public spaces, because the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled those areas are public venues.

It also makes it illegal to obstruct or prevent the intended use of streets, sidewalks or other public areas and bans protesters from making any noise or diversion that "disturbs or tends to disturb the peace or good order of a funeral."

Violations would be a misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. State law now says only that it's illegal to picket "before or about" a funeral service.

In speaking against the proposal, Mays, R-Topeka, said, "We had high hopes that something could be done."

"The way I read this, it does nothing," he said. "I would rather we pass nothing than do something that confuses the situation."

Phelps is from Topeka and has staged protests in his hometown and at funerals of soldiers throughout the nation. He says the deaths are God's vengeance for the U.S. harboring homosexuals and that their protests are a form of religious expression.

Phelps has threatened to sue if he thinks any attempt is being made to restrict free speech rights of himself and followers from his Westboro Baptist Church.

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