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Bill increases restrictions on protests at soldiers’ funerals

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Saturday, August 4, 2012, at 6:55 a.m.
  • Updated Saturday, August 4, 2012, at 7:09 a.m.

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A co-founder of the Patriot Guard on Friday praised a bill passed by Congress this week that would place new restrictions on members of Topeka’s Westboro Baptist Church who picket the funerals of fallen soldiers.

“If it’s something that will protect families that lose loved ones in the war, we’re all for that,” said Terry Houck, who founded the Patriot Guard with his wife, Carol, in 2005.

The guard has in the past parked its motorcycles between grieving family members and picketing Westboro Church members, serving as a flag-waving buffer between the groups.

The Honoring America’s Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act of 2012, which is expected to be signed into law by President Obama, will impose new restrictions on funeral protesters by increasing the quiet time before and after military funerals, and increasing the size of the buffer zone between protesters and the entrance to a funeral. It also increases criminal and civil penalties on violators.

The bill, which passed unanimously in the Senate, includes legislation authored by Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine).

“Protests that encroach upon the funerals and burials of our fallen soldiers are repugnant and inappropriate, and they undermine the respect military families and loved ones undeniably deserve,” Snowe said after Congress passed the bill.

The law prohibits protesting within two hours of the beginning or end of a service, and it requires protesters to remain at last 300 feet away from grieving family members.

Westboro Baptist Church spokesman Steve Drain told CNN on Friday that the law would have little effect on church protests.

"That’s really not going to change our plans at all," he said. "We’re going to continue to do that. We’re also going to continue to obey all laws."

The next planned protest is at a military funeral Saturday in Lincoln, Neb., and Drain told CNN that "We’ll be out there, doing our thing."

The constitutionality of such protests was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in March 2011.

Justices ruled then that Westboro was protected by the First Amendment and shielded from being sued for distress despite “hurtful” speech.

Although Westboro church members regularly protest at funerals of fallen soldiers, Houck said, they often aren’t even noticed by those attending the funerals.

For safety reasons, he said, law enforcement officials often ask Westboro protesters to set up far enough from a funeral site that they can’t be seen or heard by those attending the funeral.

“We hardly ever focus on them anymore,” he said.

“A lot of times we don’t even see them,” Houck said. “We just focus on the fallen soldier.”

Contributing: McClatchy Newspapers

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