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Archive for Friday, April 4, 2008

Sebelius signs new funeral-picketing law

April 4, 2008

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— Gov. Kathleen Sebelius signed legislation Thursday to replace a funeral-picketing law invalidated last month by the Kansas Supreme Court.

The signature is from the governor of the home state of the Rev. Fred Phelps, whose followers regularly protest services for U.S. soldiers killed in combat.

It completes the fast-track trip the bill took after the court on March 11 struck down a key portion of a funeral-picketing law that prevented its enforcement.

The new law, which goes into effect next Thursday, says protesters can't be within 150 feet of a funeral one hour before, during or two hours after a service ends. It also makes it unlawful to obstruct any public street or sidewalk.

"As we honor the memories of those Kansans who we've lost, we wish to shield their families from the despicable and disgraceful displays of those seeking publicity," Sebelius said in a written statement.

Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church, long known for a public campaign against homosexuality, began picketing soldiers' funerals in June 2005 and have protested some 345 funerals in 47 states. Church members say U.S. combat deaths are punishment for the nation's tolerance of homosexuality.

Shirley Phelps-Roper, the church's attorney and Fred Phelps' daughter, said Westboro's protesters already stay more than 150 feet away.

"I'm terribly embarrassed for her to do a thing like that," Phelps-Roeper said of the governor signing the legislation, "but I would be impressed when she can sign a bill to abolish hell and stop God from killing these young people."

The legislation is the same as what was enacted last year, minus a judicial trigger that said the law couldn't take effect until the state's highest court or a federal court upheld it.

The state Supreme Court unanimously held that the section regulating funeral protesters could not be enforced because the trigger was unconstitutional.

The justices said ruling on a law before it can be enforced usurps the Legislature's power. They didn't address the merits of the law.

Legislators moved quickly to get the restrictions back on the books, introducing a replacement bill the day of the Supreme Court's ruling. The measure moved quickly through both chambers and was sent to Sebelius on March 27.

"The people of Kansas finally can receive the protection they deserve to mourn their loved ones free from hateful protests by picketers like the Phelps family," said Rep. Raj Goyle, the Wichita Democrat who sponsored the new bill.

He said the court's ruling didn't affect one section of the earlier law allowing family members to sue if they feel protesters defamed the dead, an exception to the general rule of law that one cannot libel or slander the dead.

Phelps-Roper said the legislation defines funerals to include processions, which she called a "floating bubble" the church might challenge in court.

"If there is floating bubble, you can be charged with a crime because you are standing on a corner nowhere near a funeral and a procession goes by you," she said. "We might have to challenge that, sorry."

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