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Archive for Saturday, March 31, 2007

Sebelius to sign funeral picketing bill into law

March 31, 2007

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— Gov. Kathleen Sebelius said Friday she would sign into law legislation to restrict funeral picketing.

"I'm looking forward to signing it," Sebelius said.

The legislation was prompted by the actions of the Rev. Fred Phelps, of Topeka, and his followers who have protested nationwide at the funerals of soldiers killed in combat.

They say those deaths are God's punishment for a nation harboring homosexuals and their protests are a form of religious expression protected by the Constitution.

But Sebelius said the new law will send a message that criticizes the protests.

"It's very important that we step up as a state and say that we don't support this and we want our laws to reflect the fact that we don't support it," she said.

The bill regulates how close protesters can be to services with their placards and picketing.

It has the legal novelty of not taking effect until the Kansas Supreme Court or a federal court rules that it's constitutional. Legislators added the provision to lessen concerns that Phelps and his followers would file a legal challenge, win and collect attorney fees from the state.

"Kansas families will finally have some modicum of privacy as they bury their dead," said Senate Majority Leader Derek Schmidt, R-Independence, who came up with the court-test idea.

But Shirley Phelps-Roper, a daughter of the pastor and spokeswoman for his Westboro Baptist Church, predicted the law would have no practical effect on its activities.

"It isn't going to let you do anything to us," she said.

Under the bill, 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. Last year, the House and Senate deadlocked over a final version and nothing passed.

It 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.

Even if the bill becomes law, it won't deter church members, Phelps-Roper said.

"They have made a buffer zone, but the buffer zone is smaller than where we stand," Phelps-Roper said. "As long as we're not standing in the buffer zone, they can't lower the boom on us."

She said the group has protested about 250 funerals in the past 21 months in 41 states, and they focus their protest in high-visibility areas, often more than 150 feet away from the funeral site.

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.

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 week, 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 the service.

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