Rogers bill would ban protests at funerals

Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) has drafted legislation that would ban protests of any kind during funerals at national cemeteries.

The proposed bill is Rogers’s reaction to a bizarre protest over the weekend at the funeral of a National Guardsman in Flushing, Mich.

The service for 26-year-old Sgt. Joshua Youmans sparked a peaceable but angry showdown between protesters from the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., and an estimated 500 veterans and other volunteers who created a human wall in an attempt to block Youmans’s family and friends from the protesters’ jeers and signs.

The legislation, which Rogers is drafting with the help of House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Steve Buyer (R-Ind.), poses members with a difficult First Amendment question at a time when congressional Republicans are attempting to create some political cover on the issue of Iraq.

Calling themselves “Evil Angels,” Westboro congregants have prompted similar legislation in states across the country by conducting protests at other military funerals to condemn what one member said is “a nation who’s forgot her God.”

The Westboro protesters gathered early Saturday morning outside St. Robert Catholic Church in Flushing, hoisting signs that read “God Hates You” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” according to news reports and photos on the church website, www.godhatesfags.com.

On the site, the church refers to a recent Associated Press report about four soldiers dying from a roadside bomb in Afghanistan. Underneath the article, the church comments that it wishes “it were not 4, but 4,000 more dead soliders [sic].” The website also “thanks God” for Hurricane Katrina and the Sept. 11 attacks.

Although it is unclear exactly why the church is protesting the funerals, the church advocates the death penalty for homosexual acts and has picketed several other churches in the state for failing to take a stand against homosexuals. It has also attacked the military for employing a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy toward homosexuals.

Youmans died earlier this month at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio. He had been wounded in Habbaniyah, Iraq, in November when an improvised explosive device detonated near his vehicle, according to a Defense Department release.

Word spread early about the protest in Topeka, so members of the Kansas-based Patriot Guard and other veterans groups reacted by posting announcements on their websites and conducting phone banks to encourage supporters to show up at the church and greet the protesters with the goal of protecting the family from their taunts.

Many of the counterprotesters arrived on motorcycles, which they revved occasionally to drown out the shouts of the handful of Westboro protesters who arrived. Larry Heiser, a retired Marine, was charged with keeping the counterprotesters from fighting or exchanging words with the Westboro protesters, Rogers said. Local police eventually escorted the protesters from the church, and there were no reports in the local media of violence between the two groups.

“The discipline of the people who showed up was phenomenal,” Rogers said.

These protests have become increasingly familiar throughout the country. The Westboro website lists 10 such protests in Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska and Pennsylvania since February of this year.

Many of those same states have already proposed bills similar to the Rogers legislation as a response to these protests. Indiana, Kansas, Maryland, Missouri and Maryland have all considered legislation to ban protests at funerals, but Rogers’s bill is the first aimed at creating a national ban.

The bill would ban any protests an hour before or after the funeral ceremony at national cemeteries, which would include most military funerals. In addition, protesters gathering before or after that time limit would have to remain 500 feet from the gravesite and the individuals they are protesting, according to a release distributed by his office Monday night.

“Here is a day the family is grieving, and these people are attacking that grieving,” Rogers said yesterday. “They have a right to mourn, and they have a right to their dignity.”

Former Rep. Max Burns (R-Ga.), who is running to reclaim his old seat, put out a release supporting the proposed legislation yesterday.

The American Civil Liberties Union has objected to these bans at the state level on the grounds that they undermine the First Amendment. The group did not respond to an interview request seeking comment on the Rogers measure by press time yesterday.

“The First Amendment is in tattered shreds,” said Shirley Phelps-Roper, a spokeswoman for the church, whose father, the Rev. Fred Phelps, is pastor.

The Westboro Baptist Church employs anti-homosexual rhetoric in its signs and the material on its website, but Phelps-Roper said the message went far beyond the country’s tolerance of gays and lesbians.

“This nation worships themselves,” Phelps-Roper said. “They worship dead bodies.”

She said it is not a coincidence that those states that have addressed legislation banning her churches’ activities have experienced a spate of deadly tornadoes. She also said her the church would continue to press its message on a state and national level, whatever the consequences.