Topeka — The House and Senate are moving closer to agreeing on the best way to restrict funeral picketing in the home state of the Rev. Fred Phelps, whose followers protest throughout the nation at services of U.S. troops killed in combat.
The House Federal and State Affairs Committee considered a bill Thursday to restrict funeral picketers. Rep. Raj Goyle, one of its sponsors, presented a reworked version that left only one major difference between the House and Senate bills, over how far protesters must remain from the funeral.
The House bill calls for 150 feet; the Senate version, passed last month, calls for 300 feet. Both prohibit protests one hour before, during and two hours after the funeral service and make it unlawful to obstruct any public street or sidewalk.
"We must pass a bill that respects our fallen soldiers," said Goyle, D-Wichita.
The reworked version added two key elements from the Senate bill: It wouldn't take effect until the Kansas Supreme Court or a federal court ruled it constitutional and it would allow family members to sue if they felt the protesters committed libel or slander against the deceased.
Courts generally have held, however, that one cannot slander or libel the dead.
"It sounds like we're close," said Senate Majority Leader Derek Schmidt. "In concept we're on the same page. It's just a matter of working out the details."
Chairman Arlen Siegfreid, R-Olathe, said his committee would work on the bill later this month, adding he liked the reworked version.
Last year, the House and Senate deadlocked on a final version; nothing passed. The House wanted tougher requirements and the Senate was concerned it would be too restrictive and get struck down by the courts.
Schmidt, R-Independence, said the reworked version increases the chances of getting a bill to Gov. Kathleen Sebelius this year.
"It sounds as if the House wants to further improve the odds that it can survive a constitutional challenge," he said. "We would be very open to that discussion."
Attorney General Paul Morrison told the committee that distance is the key.
"It's a big deal. We're looking at what the courts have done in other states, and other states with 300 feet have had problems," Morrison said. "Nobody knows a clear answer. It's still a developing area of the law."
He said that adding the requirement for a court decision before the law could take effect "is our best opportunity to prevent private litigants from recouping attorneys' fees from the state of Kansas."
Phelps and his followers at Westboro Baptist Church have conducted anti-homosexual protests since 1991 but gained national attention for showing up at military funerals. They contend the soldiers' deaths are God's vengeance for the U.S. harboring homosexuals and that the protests are a form of religious expression.
Shirley Roper-Phelps, Fred Phelps' daughter and spokeswoman for the church, has said the picketing ban will be struck down by the courts.
The church's picketing has inspired national outrage. At least 27 states, plus the federal government, have enacted laws restricting funeral picketing, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Among those testifying for the bill was Brandy Sacco, whose husband, Army Sgt. Dominic Sacco, was killed in Iraq in 2005. She said protesters from Westboro Baptist were at her husband's funeral in Topeka.
"Protect our soldiers like they protect us," she told the committee.
Ron Herndon, of Rose Hill, is a member of the Patriot Guard, which shows up at military funerals when invited by the family to provide a shield from the protesters.
"Turn your heart to the families and quit worrying about the Phelpses," he said. "We need to take care of the families of our fallen soldiers."