Archive for Friday, April 13, 2007

Governor signs funeral picketing legislation

April 13, 2007


— The home state of the Rev. Fred Phelps and his followers, who protest military funerals nationally and say the deaths are God's punishment for the nation harboring homosexuals, now has a law regulating their activities, but it won't take effect until a court rules it's constitutional.

"I think it's important that Kansas step up and say this is not what we're about," Gov. Kathleen Sebelius said. "I'm hoping that people find this a strong message from the state."

The new law, which Sebelius signed Thursday, puts its enforcement on hold until the Kansas Supreme Court or a federal court declares it's valid.

Legislators added that unusual provision to lessen concerns that Phelps and his followers from Westboro Baptist Church, of Topeka, would file a legal challenge, win and collect attorney fees from the state. Last year, lawmakers couldn't agree on the bill's scope and nothing passed.

But Shirley Phelps-Roper, the church's attorney, called the new law "absolutely worthless."

"Their law fell so painfully short of hitting any mark. It accomplishes exactly nothing," said Phelps-Roper, daughter of Fred Phelps.

Governor sure law will clear

The governor said she's confident the law will withstand court scrutiny.

It says protesters can't be within 150 feet of a funeral one hour before, during or two hours after the end of the service. Violators would face up to a $1,000 fine and six months in jail.

It also makes it unlawful to obstruct any public street or sidewalk and allows family members to sue if they feel protesters defamed the deceased - an exception to the general rule of law that one cannot libel or slander the dead.

Phelps-Roper said the new law won't stop their picketing because what they do won't be a violation.

"We are always more than 300 feet from the funeral site and always leave before the funeral starts," she said. "There is nothing about the law that has anything to do with us."

Senate Majority Leader Derek Schmidt, who helped craft the legislation, said he's not surprised by Phelps-Roper's opinion.

"Sounds like we have these folks agitated already. Our approach must be working," said Schmidt, R-Independence.

'It was awful'

As she signed the bill, Sebelius was surrounded by about 50 members of the Patriot Guard, who were clad in black leather. The group of motorcyclists demonstrate against Phelps and his church, forming a human shield between families and pickets at funerals.

Also on hand was Brandy Sacco, of Topeka, whose husband, Army Sgt. Dominic Sacco, was killed in Iraq in 2005. She recalled that protesters from Westboro Baptist were at his funeral.

"I'm glad others won't have to go through the pain and agony I had to go through," she said. "It was awful. I couldn't fathom why people would do that."

The new law requires Attorney General Paul Morrison to take the necessary steps to get a court ruling on the bill's constitutionality. Phelps-Roper questioned whether that's a legitimate role for an attorney general.

No decision has been made on when to act as Morrison and his staff discuss the various legal options available, said spokeswoman Ashley Anstaett.

"The minute they file a lawsuit, we will be there to intervene and ask the court to dismiss it," Phelps-Roper said.

Known around the nation

Schmidt said the concept was borrowed from the state's redistricting law, which requires court approval before it can take effect.

The members of Westboro Baptist, a small fundamentalist congregation, say their protests are a form of religious expression protected by the Constitution.

Phelps and his followers have conducted anti-homosexual protests since 1991 but gained national attention when they started showing up at funerals for troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Phelps-Roper said the group has protested about 260 funerals in the past 21 months in 42 states.

Those actions generated outrage throughout the nation. At least 32 states have enacted laws restricting funeral protests, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Last month, a federal judge upheld significant portions of Ohio's 2006 law limiting when and where people can protest at funerals. That state's law prohibits protesters from being within 300 feet of a funeral either one hour before or after.


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