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Top Stories This Week in the Chronicle.
September 15, 2006

ACLU challenges Ohio's anti-Phelps law as too broad

Cleveland--The ACLU of Ohio is challenging a new state law intended to keep a notorious anti-gay preacher from picketing the funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq.

The legislature passed the Rest in Peace Act last spring. The ACLU says the measure is overly broad and filed suit against it on August 24, shortly after it took effect.

The act was a reaction to protests by Fred Phelps� Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, an unaffiliated congregation with a history of virulently anti-gay rhetoric.

Phelps� church, which is mostly his extended family, has traveled the country since the early 1990s, protesting funerals of people who died of AIDS and hate crime victims like Matthew Shepard. They wave signs reading �God hates fags� and �Thank God for 9/11.�

In the past year, the group has taken to picketing the funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq, promoting Phelps� line that God is punishing soldiers because the United States shelters homosexuals and is filled with �fag enablers.�

The church�s protests led to a federal law barring demonstrations at federal cemeteries, and states across the country have passed similar measures.

Ohio�s law bans protests during funerals and an hour before or afterward, creating a 300-foot protest-free zone around the funeral home, cemetery and funeral procession.

�The ban is far too broad,� said ACLU of Ohio legal director Jeffrey Gamso. �The time restraints, free speech �bubble� and the fact that it will move with the funeral procession will effectively prohibit protesting for large amounts of time in many communities around Ohio.�

�If a political group wanted to have a demonstration on Main Street and a funeral procession was driving by, they would not be permitted to continue, even if the protest has nothing to do with the funeral,� he said. �That is clearly too strict and would severely limit free speech.�

Similar laws have been challenged in other states, including Kentucky, though none of those challenges have yet been decided.

ACLU of Ohio Executive Director Chris Link brought up the example of striking workers picketing outside their place of employment. She said that, as the law stands, if a funeral procession drove by, the workers would have to stop.

The Westboro demonstrators have spurred another backlash: the Patriot Guard Riders, a group of 53,000 people nationwide who attend military funerals to show their respect and, if need be, block protesters from view.

Patriot Guard Riders were present at the funeral earlier this year of Mark Todd Shinkle, the president of the Buckeye Region American Veterans for Equal Rights.

�We do it to respect and honor the soldier and support the family,� Bob �Tater� Smith, a Sandusky veteran, told the Toledo Blade of the Patriot Guard Riders� mission. The group has 1,600 members in Ohio.

Smith believes the Rest in Peace Act is unnecessary and will be more trouble than it�s worth.

�They threaten more than they show up,� he said of Westboro Baptist Church. �If you ignore them, they just go away. Our way costs a lot less for the taxpayers.�

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