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Top Stories This Week in the Chronicle.
May 19, 2006

Ohio House passes
anti-Phelps bill

But Kentucky�s is challenged as unconstitutional

Columbus--The reaction against an anti-gay preacher�s protests at military funerals swept the Statehouse on May 10, as the Ohio House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill limiting demonstrations near funerals.

The bill, intended to stop protests by Fred Phelps� Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, outlaws �picketing or other protest activities� within 300 feet of a funeral, burial or funeral procession. In the cases of funerals and burials, the ban takes effect one hour before the event and ends one hour after its conclusion.

The bill moved to the Ohio Senate the next day. It has not yet been heard by committee.

Over 30 states have introduced similar measures in the past two years, and at least nine have passed.

The only notable failure in the drive to pass the laws is in Phelps� home state of Kansas, where legislators thought the bill was not strict enough.

Kentucky and Indiana have both passed funeral protest laws, but Kentucky�s is being challenged in federal court by the American Civil Liberties Union, who charge that its broadness violates First Amendment freedom of speech protections.

A bill barring noisy protests at Arlington and other federal cemeteries, with a 500-foot restriction an hour before and after funerals, passed the U.S. House of Representatives on May 9. The measure passed 408 to 3 and is now in the Senate.

Phelps, whose congregation is composed primarily of his extended family and is not affiliated with a larger denomination, has traveled the country picketing the funerals of gay men and people with AIDS since the early 1990s. He first became widely known when he demonstrated at the funeral of Matthew Shepard, a gay student murdered in Laramie, Wyoming in 1998.

There, the Phelps clan, including several children, carried placards emblazoned with phrases like �God Hates Fags� and saying that Shepard was �burning in Hell� while a group of Shepard�s friends and others, dressed as angels, blocked them from mourners� view.

Phelps has also picketed plays, churches, high schools and other locations or events that he thinks are too pro-gay, including the funeral of President Clinton�s mother.

Since the war in Iraq began, the Westboro protesters have begun picketing funerals of soldiers who die there, carrying signs saying �God Hates America� and �Thank God for IEDs,� the road bombs that cause many of the deaths.

The group�s spokesperson, Shirley Phelps Roper, says that God is punishing the United States for being too permissive on homosexuality.

The first visible reaction to Phelps� military funeral protests was the formation of the Patriot Guard Riders, a national association of around 30,000 people, most of whom ride motorcycles. They shield mourners at the funerals of military personnel, much as Shepard�s friends did at his funeral.

The Patriot Guard Riders sent a delegation to the April funeral of Todd Shinkle, president of the Buckeye Region American Veterans for Equal Rights, backing up their assertion that serving the country, regardless of sexual orientation, should be honored.

Rep. Steve Chabot of Ohio says the federal bill was designed to withstand constitutional challenges by establishing �a reasonable time, place and manner restriction.� It also calls for state governments to introduce legislation protecting funerals outside of the military cemetery system.

Rep. Mike Rogers of Michigan described the protesters at a military funeral in his home state as letting loose with �chants and taunting and some of the most vile things I have ever heard.�

The Ohio bill had 87 sponsors in the 99-member House, coming from both sides of the aisle.


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