LONDON, Ky. – Demonstrators squared off Saturday outside a funeral home where a service was being held for a solider, the first such scene in Kentucky since a judge suspended a state law that required a 300-foot buffer zone for protests at military funerals.
Dozens of demonstrators surrounded London Funeral Home, waved American flags and exchanged shouts for more than an hour before the service with members of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., which tours the country protesting at military funerals.
Church members held signs across the street that read, "America is doomed," "Thank God for 9/11," and "Thank God for dead soldiers."
The family of Sgt. 1st Class Charles Jason Jones had invited a half-dozen groups to wave full-size American flags, express their support of U.S. soldiers and honor Jones after hearing about the church's plans to protest the funeral, according to military officials.
More than 200 mourners, including Gov. Ernie Fletcher, filled the chapel to pay tribute to the 29-year-old Kentucky National Guardsman, who was found dead in his quarters in Iraq on Sept. 20 from causes not related to combat. The military is investigating the death.
Little was said of the demonstration during the funeral, though the Rev. Charles Taylor told mourners that the presence of the Westboro protesters was "a dishonor."
"I feel sorry for them," he said, adding, "I appreciate the folks holding the flags."
Last week, U.S. District Judge Karen Caldwell wrote that the state law could restrict the free speech rights of people in nearby homes, sidewalks and streets, even if they cannot be seen or heard by funeral participants.
The law, passed this year, was aimed at members of the Kansas church, which claims the soldiers' deaths are a sign of God punishing America for tolerating homosexuality.
About a dozen states have similar laws, and Congress passed a law this year prohibiting protests at military funerals at federal cemeteries.
Joe Gilliland was protesting to honor Jones and his family. When asked about Westboro, he said, "I think they have rights just like we do. They have the right to do whatever they want to, but I'm not sure this is the right place for it."