SEAFORD, Delaware – Five people face criminal charges after a weekend confrontation with members of a Kansas church group that pickets military funerals because it believes U.S. casualties in Iraq are a sign of God's punishment for America's tolerance of homosexuality, authorities said Monday.
Less than a dozen members of Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, gathered in Seaford on Sunday for a protest in conjunction with the funeral of Marine Cpl. Cory Palmer, a local resident who died earlier this month from injuries suffered in Iraq.
The protests by the Kansas church group led by the Rev. Fred Phelps prompted the U.S. House of Representatives earlier this month to pass a measure to restrict demonstrations at military funerals at federal burial grounds.
The measure urged states to pass similar legislation to cover nonfederal cemeteries, and more than a dozen states are considering laws aimed at funeral protesters. The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a federal lawsuit against one such new law in Kentucky, saying it goes too far in limiting freedom of speech and expression.
In response to the protests, a motorcycle group, the Patriot Guard Riders, has begun appearing at funerals to pay respects to the fallen service member and protect the family from protesters.
On Sunday, the Kansas group, carrying signs reading "God Hates Fags," "Fags Doom Nations" and "Vengeance is Mine, Sayeth the Lord," was met by a crowd of about 1,000 angry counter-demonstrators shouting "USA! USA!" as well as various taunts and obscenities.
Passing motorists honked their horns and hundreds of motorcycle riders revved their engines in an attempt to drown out the church members' shouts. Some counter-demonstrators hurled eggs, stones and water bottles.
State troopers and Seaford police officers were positioned between the two factions, but authorities say a man broke through the police line and began assaulting two of the Westboro protesters shortly before the demonstration ended.
David Jones, 29, of Bridgeville, Delaware, was charged with two counts of third-degree assault and one count of disorderly conduct. He was released on $1,500 unsecured bond.
A 16-year-old Seaford boy was charged with criminal mischief and disorderly conduct after a tire on the Westboro group's rented van was slashed. He was being held at a detention center Monday in lieu of $1,000 bond.
Three other Seaford residents were charged with criminal mischief and disorderly conduct after several counter-demonstrators threw rocks and bottles at a fire department vehicle carrying the Westboro protesters away from the scene, breaking several windows. Each was released on $1,000 bond.
"Tempers got very high," said Stephanie Hansen, an attorney for the city. "The city provided plenty of police protection and did everything in its power to protect the members of Westboro Baptist Church as they exercised their First Amendment rights."
Despite the violence, police department spokesman Capt. Gary Flood said he believed area residents showed "good restraint."
Church members plan to return to Seaford on Wednesday to picket the funeral of Lance Cpl. Richard James.
Phelps' church is not affiliated with a larger denomination and is made up mostly of his extended family.