Topeka Kansas legislators again are trying to find a way to ban picketing at funerals of U.S. troops killed in combat, in response to protests in recent years throughout the nation by the Rev. Fred Phelps and his followers.
Last year, a funeral picketing bill died because the House and Senate couldn't agree on the best way to deal with what legislators agreed was an embarrassment to the state. Some worried that if the law was too restrictive, Phelps and his followers would win a lawsuit and get attorneys' fees, further financing their activities.
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.
The bill introduced Thursday bans protests within 300 feet of a funeral within one hour before, during and two hours following the start of the funeral. It also makes it unlawful to obstruct public streets or sidewalks while picketing. Violations would be a misdemeanor.
This year's version has a new wrinkle: The ban wouldn't be enforced until the Kansas Supreme Court rules that it's constitutional. The attorney general's office would be directed to file a lawsuit challenging the law.
"It's a way to test the constitutionality without running the risk of getting sued and losing the lawsuit," said Senate Majority Leader Derek Schmidt, who introduced the bill with 36 co-sponsors in the 40-member chamber.
"We are telling the attorney general to sue the state, claiming it's unconstitutional, and see what the court says," said Schmidt, R-Independence.
The bill also says if protesters defame the memory of the dead service member, the estate could file a lawsuit. That part of the law would be in effect irrespective of how the court rules on the buffer zone.
Shirley Phelps-Roper, spokeswoman for the church and daughter of Fred Phelps, dismissed the legislation.
"What legislative session would be complete without a run at the servants of God at Westboro Baptist Church," said Phelps-Roper, an attorney.
Westboro Baptist's funeral picketing has inspired outrage and legislation across the nation. At least 27 states, plus the federal government, have enacted laws restricting funeral picketing, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.