Topeka Atty. Gen. Phill Kline promised Thursday to renew the push for new state restrictions on funeral picketing, and he's supporting a federal proposal to prevent what he calls a "shakedown" when such laws are challenged in court.
Both measures are aimed at the Rev. Fred Phelps Sr. and his Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, which has received national attention for picketing soldiers' funerals. The church contends soldiers' deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan are God's punishment for the United States tolerating homosexuality.
Kline and a half-dozen fellow Republicans plan to introduce a bill on funeral picketing once the 2007 Legislature convenes in January. They also are endorsing a proposal from U.S. Rep. Todd Tiahrt, R-Kan., to prevent anyone who challenges such a law in court from recovering attorney fees.
"I'm supportive of any constitutional method available to shut the mouth of the Phelpses," Kline said during a news conference. "A reasonable restriction at a funeral is not harmful to free speech."
Shirley Phelps-Roper, an attorney and church member, dismissed Kline and other supporters of such efforts as demagogues. She called Kline "a fool" and "pitiful," saying he is trying desperately to hold onto his office as he faces re-election.
Protests by the Rev. Fred Phelps Sr.'s Westboro Baptist Church have some calling for laws against picketing at funerals. But the church group says it has a right to picket under the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment, which reads: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." Source: The National Archives
"Shortly, this nation is going to have bodies stacked so high, you can't bury them," she said during a telephone interview from Albuquerque, N.M., where the church was picketing a funeral. "All those laws and all this activity and all this mischief isn't going to help them one iota."
"They hate God. They hate his judgments. They will not obey his commandments," she added.
The federal government and more than half the states, including Missouri, have enacted laws restricting funeral picketing, but Kansas legislators couldn't agree this year on a proposal. Some worried that if the law were too restrictive, Fred Phelps and his followers would successfully challenge it in court - and be awarded attorneys' fees, further financing their activities.
Laws in Kentucky, Missouri and Ohio are being challenged in federal court by Westboro Baptist, the American Civil Liberties Union or both. Phelps and his church have been sued in Maryland and Missouri by family members of dead soldiers.
Kline said a federal law allowing people filing civil rights lawsuits to recover their costs was designed to allow people of modest means a way to challenge discriminatory policies.
"In no way was that provision to be utilized for shakedowns of government in a legitimate action to protect those who've suffered the loss of a loved one," Kline said.
More about funeral picketing
- 6News video: Funeral protest legislation in the works
- Phelps donation to Kline campaign brings criticism (08-15-06)
- Phelps group files suit against Missouri law (07-22-06)
- Funeral protest law to get first test today (06-06-06)
- Senate passes measure on funeral picketing (05-25-06)
- Lawmakers fail to enact picketing bill (05-11-06)
- House rejects compromise bill on funeral picketing (25-06-06)
- Negotiators agree on funeral picketing legislation (05-03-06)
- Agreement reached on funeral picketing (04-28-06)
Tiahrt said people he has talked with in Washington were appalled that groups such as Westboro Baptist Church could use "frivolous" lawsuits to fund such activities.
"If they really do want to file suit, they should do so, I believe, with their own resources," Tiahrt said. "Here they are, trying to cash in on their bad behavior. I just think taxpayer dollars can be better spent."
But Phelps-Roper said church members simply were "servants of the living God." She also said their activities were protected by the First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and religion and to peaceably assemble.
"Somebody ought to ask Mr. Dingbat Tiahrt if he's every actually read the First Amendment," she said.
Kansas law already says 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 a $1,000 fine.
But Sen. Jean Schodorf, R-Wichita, who sponsored this year's legislation, said existing law is so vague that it's hard to enforce. Legislators have discussed setting a limit on how close picketers can get to a funeral, such as 300 feet.
Kline, locked in a close re-election race, has been criticized by Democratic challenger Paul Morrison, the Johnson County district attorney, about a $500 contribution Kline received in October 2002 from a member of the Phelps family.
Kline has said he didn't know the donor was connected to Westboro Baptist, and he subsequently donated the same amount to the Patriot Guard, a group that protests against the Phelpses.