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Top Stories This Week in the Chronicle.
January 27, 2006

Go away, Fred

Bill would outlaw Kansas family's
pickets at funerals

Columbus--The Ohio House is considering a bill to stop a notorious anti-gay preacher from picketing near funerals.

State Rep. John Boccieri said he introduced the measure after a Youngstown constituent was shocked and disgusted by Topeka, Kansas preacher Fred Phelps and his family demonstrating at Iraq veterans� funerals.

Boccieri, a Democrat, had just returned from his fourth rotation in Iraq as an Air Force Reserves pilot.

Phelps and his extended family, organized as Westboro Baptist Church, travel around the country picketing the funerals of people who have died of AIDS, hate crime victims and public figures they believe are LGBT-affirming. They have waved their �God Hates Fags� signs at services for President Clinton�s mother Virginia Kelley and Wyoming gaybashing victim Matthew Shepard.

According to the group�s web site, they have done 22,000 pickets since 1991, including presidential inaugurations, GLBT pride events, schools with gay-straight alliances, gay-friendly churches and hate crime conferences.

Phelps and his family began picketing Iraq veterans� funerals last summer, saying that their deaths are God�s punishment on America for embracing homosexuals.

They have since made similar claims about victims of coal mine accidents and Hurricane Katrina.

Boccieri said he was unaware of the group�s activity before it focused on Iraq veterans, and that his sensitivity to the veterans moved him to introduce it.

His bill modifies a section of the Ohio Revised Code dealing with nuisances and, specifically, disrupting funerals. It outlaws protesting within 300 feet of any funeral or funeral procession, to be enforced by local police.

Protesters must be more than 300 feet away from �any residence, cemetery, funeral home, church, synagogue or other establishment� from one hour before the funeral begins to one hour after it is finished.

Boccieri said his House Bill 484 is modeled after similar ones that have been proposed in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Missouri, Oklahoma and Wisconsin.

The bill, introduced January 24, is co-sponsored by Democrats Ken Carano of Youngstown, Kathleen Chandler of Kent, Sandra Harwood of Warren, William J. Healy II of Canton, and Dan Stewart of Columbus. Republican co-sponsors are Ron Hood of Ashville, Jim Hughes of Columbus, Jim McGregor of Gahanna, Jim Raussen of Springdale, Bill Seitz of Cincinnati, Jeff Wagoner of Toledo and Chris Widener of Springfield.

Phelps� two daughters, Margie Phelps and Shirley Phelps-Roper, are attorneys and posted a warning to Boccieri and the other states� legislatures on their web site January 25.

�Your proposals are rampant with blatant content-focus, so most likely you�ll end up in court,� says the warning. �Your standard is �reasonable time, place, and manner restriction.� If you go one bit over that line we�re going to litigate and request fees.�

Ohio ACLU litigation coordinator Gary Daniels said they may have a point.

�There�s a very real First Amendment issue here,� he said.

�I can�t imagine Phelps seeking ACLU protection,� he continued, �but others could, and we will talk to anyone who thinks they have been affected.�

Phelps and his daughters have had some success exercising their First Amendment rights in the past.

Daniels said that the bill is clearly aimed at Phelps--which Boccieri concedes--but that if it becomes law it will affect others.

He gave examples of other funeral protests, including friends and family protesting that a school did not protect a gay student from being bashed, family members of a slain soldier calling for the U.S. to come out of Iraq, and people protesting someone killed by police in a controversial way.

Daniels also took issue with use of the vague term �other protest activities� in what the bill seeks to limit.

The bill also does not list the penalty for violation.

�The First Amendment protects controversial speech, not the most sympathetic people,� said Daniels. �Most First Amendment law has been made by the NAACP and white supremacist groups.�

Daniels said the Bill of Rights is the ACLU�s only concern. �We care less about who the client is and more about the principle.�

�That�s where I have a fundamental disagreement with the ACLU,� said Boccieri. �In civil law, your rights end where mine begin.�

�Besides,� said Boccieri, �There�s no prohibition, you just have to be back 300 feet to protest at a funeral.� The distance is the length of a football field.

Boccieri said he is also concerned that the Phelps family will ally with other right-wing groups like the militant Minute Men, who picketed a Columbus bathhouse in 2003.

However, Phelps has no known history of forming alliances with any other groups.

Boccieri said that with Republican co-sponsorship, he expects the bill to pass.

�[Senate President Bill] Harris already said he will do all he can to support it, and [House Speaker Jon] Husted said he wants to learn more,� said Boccieri.

 

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