Topeka The Rev. Fred Phelps and his followers won't have to worry in his home state about greater restrictions on protests at funerals of U.S. troops killed in combat. But it wasn't from the lack of lawmakers trying to come up with new regulations.
Legislators headed home Wednesday without sending a bill to Gov. Kathleen Sebelius because the House and Senate couldn't agree on how to deal with what legislators agreed was an embarrassment to the state.
Phelps is from Topeka and has staged protests at funerals of soldiers in his hometown and throughout the nation. He says their deaths are God's vengeance for the U.S. harboring homosexuals and that his protests are a form of religious expression.
The U.S. House approved legislation Tuesday restricting demonstrations at military funerals. Kansas was among 31 states considering legislation this year to restrict protest activities around funerals, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Eleven enacted laws - Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Virginia and Wisconsin. The American Civil Liberties Union is challenging the Kentucky law.
"I find it a little ironic that nationally, they can come together on a bill and we can't mobilize the kind of will in Kansas to make a similar statement," Sebelius said during a news conference. "Picketing funerals of soldiers is despicable."
Kansas lawmakers were in two distinct camps on how to deal with Phelps. The Senate took a cautious stance about passing something that could withstand a court challenge; the House seemed to welcome such a fight.
"Kansas has many years of experience of dealing with this crowd, so there are very strong feelings," said Senate Majority Leader Derek Schmidt, R-Independence.
Phelps had threatened to sue if he felt any attempt was being made to restrict free speech rights of himself and followers from his Westboro Baptist Church.
"The very last thing we should risk is handing a legal victory to the Phelps group and risk paying them taxpayers dollars in the form of damages," Schmidt said.
Schmidt said the issue will be back next year.
Under current state law, it is illegal to picket "before or about" a funeral service one hour before, during or two hours after the service starts. Violators face up to six months in jail and $1,000 fine.
The legislation was doomed last week after the House rejected a compromise to restrict protests to no closer than 500 feet to a funeral one hour before, during or two hours after the service. It exempted streets, sidewalks and other public spaces, because the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled those areas are public venues.