Published April 20, 2011
The Westboro Baptist Church, based in Topeka, Kansas, has succeeded in attracting plenty of attention by holding prominent protests at the funerals of fallen U.S. military soldiers and Marines.
In March, they scored a big legal victory when the Supreme Court decided in an eight to one ruling that the First Amendment protects Westboro members, and that their speech cannot be restricted simply because “it is upsetting or arouses contempt.”
Now a bipartisan coalition of U.S. Senators is stepping into the fray, proposing legislation that will set boundaries for those seeking to disrupt military funerals.
The SERVE Act would ban disruptive noise for a period of two hours before and after the funeral, and create a 300 foot buffer around the funeral services.
“Families of military servicemen and women should have the right, the ability to lay their loved ones to rest with dignity and peace,” Senator Marco Rubio, R-Fla., one of the bill’s sponsors says. Rubio predicts swift passage of the measure, adding, “I can’t imagine anyone being against it, at least no one in their right mind.”
Margie Phelps is the daughter of Westboro’s pastor Fred Phelps, and she successfully argued the group’s case before the Supreme Court. She says the legislation is completely off base.
When asked for her reaction to the proposed legislation, Phelps told Fox News, “These pandering perverts have no respect for the laws of man or God.”
Phelps also questions the validity of the law, calling it “grossly out of bounds of the Constitution.”
“I don’t know who the lawyers are advising these senators on this, but they need to be fired for incompetence,” Phelps said.
Arizona State University Professor Joseph Russomanno has talked with members of the Phelps family, and believes that in the wake of their Supreme Court victory, they are more emboldened than ever. He doubts the legislation, if it becomes law, will impact Westboro’s demonstrations.
“They believe they’ve been chosen to perform this particular mission, and I don’t see how they think that anything is going to stop them from doing that,” he said.
Russomanno also believes Westboro may have grounds for a legal challenge, should the church decide to sue over the buffers and noise restrictions.
“I think it’s entirely possible,” Russomanno says. “Having looked through the law I can see where they may find some places within it that are ripe for challenge.”
The House of Representatives will consider a similar measure.
Drafters of the bills believe they are narrowly tailored enough to meet constitutional scrutiny. But Phelps questions why the Senate is investing its time in this particular measure at all.
“Maybe next they can pass a law abolishing hell,” she said.