Families Seek Legislative Remedies From Funeral Protesters

It was a typical scenario for the Westboro Baptist Church — another demonstration outside the funeral of a soldier killed in Iraq. This time the venue was Meadowood Baptist Church in Midwest City, Okla., noted a full rundown of the event recorded later by church members on their Web site.

The signs held by members that Feb. 2 were dutifully noted on the church's web-journal: "Steve held 'Thank God for Dead Soldiers,' 'You're Going to Hell' and 'Fags Doom Nations' while Shirl held 'America is Doomed,' 'God is America's Terror' and 'Don't Worship the Dead' with a flag tied around her waist."

The Kansas-based church, which believes God is punishing America for its tolerance of homosexuality by sending home U.S. soldiers "in body bags," chose as one of its most recent demonstration sites the funeral of Army Staff Sgt. Lance Chase, 32, father of two sons, who died from a roadside bomb while on duty in Iraq on Jan. 23. On Sunday, Westboro's adherents traveled to Yankton, S.D., to the memorial service for 21-year-old Army National Guard Spc. Allen D. Kokesh, Jr.

As a result of their unwelcome presence at these and other memorials, at least 14 states are considering measures to ban demonstrations outside of funeral services.

"I believe these families have given the ultimate sacrifice — their loved one — and they should be allowed to bury their loved one in peace," said Kansas state Sen. Jean Schodorf, who has sponsored legislation to keep protesters at a safe distance from funerals and memorial services.

For many legislators, it's not difficult to support a bill that would shield grieving families and friends of soldiers and others from signs like "Soldier Fag in Hell," and "Thank God for Dead Soldiers!" outside of funeral homes and churches — the site of scores of demonstrations by Rev. Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church followers.

But some warn that such a ban may not pass constitutional muster despite how disgusting some believe the demonstrators' behavior might be.

"The bottom line is, we have a right in America to express our views, even if most people would think them repellent," said Gene Policinski, a spokesman for the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee.

Phelps' churchgoers sure see it that way. Asked about the recent stream of state proposals to ban protests, Phelps' daughter, Shirley Phelps-Roper, said her father's church welcomes the legal fight.

"These people don't have any idea what the law is," said Phelps-Roper, an attorney and mother of 11 children who spoke to FOXNews.com shortly after the group had demonstrated outside of the Tuesday memorial service for Coretta Scott King in Georgia.

The church enjoys the First Amendment freedoms "you claim those soldiers are dying for," she said.

Westboro Baptist Church, an independent congregation of about 75 people, has been picketing in the Kansas area for years, often choosing memorial services for AIDS victims. But the group has recently made national headlines by traveling to places like Oklahoma and Tennessee, bringing their anti-gay rhetoric to the memorials for soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Congregation members also picketed outside of the funerals for the 12 West Virginia miners who perished after a mine explosion in January.

Asked what the church expected to accomplish by upsetting grieving families, Phelps explained they are on a mission, and that it is their right to be there.

"We are delivering a message. God is punishing this nation and he is using the IED as his weapon of choice," she said, referring to the improvised explosive devices that have killed many of the U.S. soldiers stationed in Iraq since 2003. At least 2,255 American military personnel have died in Iraq since the war began.

Rejecting Phelps-Roper's arguments, lawmakers like Schodorf of Kansas, state Sen. Mike Friend of Nebraska and others say they will work with constitutional experts to ensure any laws they draft will withstand a legal challenge from the group.

"I believe it's constitutional," said Schodorf, who said her proposal to keep protesters 300 feet from any funeral or memorial service would supplement an existing statute that bans protests an hour before and two hours after these events.

Schodorf said a constitutional attorney will be guiding the process, and Gov. Kathleen Sebelius has promised to sign the bill once it passes the Legislature.

"We're having trouble finding the balance but we think we can do it," said Friend, regarding the Nebraska proposal, which is still being molded to fit constitutional concerns.

"We're trying to keep the people who are mourning from being subjected to this stuff, and prevent any potential violence that could break out," he said.

Ed Yohnka of the American Civil Liberties Union in Illinois, another state considering a restriction on funeral picketing, said his organization wants to work with legislators to ensure their measures don't cross the fine line between constructive regulation and violations of free speech.

"We're talking to legislators and governors. While their aims are good and may be viewed as compassionate and perfectly appropriate for many reasons, how do we get there in terms of being constitutional" is the challenge, he added.

Bills being considered in the other states, including Ohio, Indiana, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Missouri, Vermont, Kentucky, South Dakota, Virginia and West Virginia, all offer varying degrees of restrictions based on timing of the demonstrations, proximity to the services and behavior that is banned.

Meanwhile, Wisconsin was the first to pass legislation on Feb. 2, the same day as Chase's funeral, making it a crime to protest within 500 feet of the entrance to a ceremony site and within an hour before or after a scheduled service.

Phelps-Roper said church members are unmoved. "It's all good. It's not going to stop us," she said. "We have the moral high ground."

As state legislatures debate, grieving families have found solace in a Veterans-based motorcycle group that formed, in part, to act as a buffer between mourners and protesters at these funerals. The Patriot Guard, now a nationwide network of thousands in every state, attend services at the behest of families and help lower tensions by blocking the protesters from view and drowning out their chants.

Jeff Brown, founder and director of the Patriot Guard, said the organization's primary mission is to attend services to honor fellow soldiers. He said the volunteers do not consider themselves a counter-protest or "muscle" brought in to stare down Phelps' crew. However, he said his group was called in by the families of the West Virginia miners on account of Phelps' parishioners.

Brown said while he understands the free speech concerns, he supports any attempt to keep these demonstrators at bay.

"By picking a time and location that are very emotionally tense to begin with, and saying the things they say and holding the placards they hold, and committing the actions they do … they are, in fact, it can be argued, attempting to incite a riot," said Brown. "That's my take on it."