Church protests storm victim's funeral

05/18/2007 1:01 AM

01/24/2008 5:15 PM

Sarah Keller thought it was outrageous that someone would aim a protest at a church where people were honoring a military veteran who died after being injured by the Greensburg tornado.

That's why Keller, 27, of Pratt drove 20 miles to Haviland on Thursday to join dozens of members of the Patriot Guard in showing respect for Harold Eugene Schmidt, 77. He died May 14 after undergoing five surgeries for the injuries he suffered after being pinned under a truck by the May 4 tornado.

Keller and Guard members held American flags and lined up with shiny motorcycles on the street outside Friends Church in Haviland, a town of about 600 about 10 miles east of Greensburg. Inside the church, relatives and friends were holding a funeral for Schmidt, a retired farmer and Korean War veteran who was survived by his wife, Sarah, four children, 13 grandchildren and 19 great-grandchildren.

Keller and the Guard members said they were there to shield the grieving relatives from several protesters who held signs and sang parodies of patriotic tunes.

The protesters were from Fred Phelps' Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka. One sign said: "God's Fury" and showed a churning twister.

Keller decided that joining the Guard to counter the protest was a worthy cause, especially because many of the Guard members have been busy with relief work in Greensburg.

With several other women, she stood by the curb, and each held an American flag. They and Guard members stationed themselves between the church and the protesters, who stayed on a street corner about 100 yards from the church.

Several Ford County deputies watched. They were there to keep the peace, said sheriff's Capt. Bryan Burgess.

"We are here to protect the citizens from letting their emotions get the best of them and get wrapped up in this," Burgess said, motioning to the protesters behind him.

Minutes later, a man on a riding lawn mower cut a swath near the protesters, and one of the protesters, a woman, yelled: "Officer! Officer! He just spit on me!"

Burgess and a deputy talked to the woman and the man.

Burgess said the protester didn't cooperate when she was asked questions about what happened. There were no arrests, Burgess said.

After about an hour on the corner, the protesters got into a minivan, and a law enforcement vehicle followed as they drove past the Guard members lined up outside the church.

Someone yelled: "Get out of town!" Guard members turned their backs to the protesters' van as a show of disrespect, said Guard member Paul McPhillips, a commander with a Wichita American Legion post. Other Guard members came from cities including Larned, Newton, El Dorado, Canton, Hutchinson and Pratt.

This year, the state Legislature passed a bill that bans demonstrations within 150 feet of a funeral site for one hour before, during and two hours after a funeral.

The bill became law when the governor signed it, but it can't be enforced until the state attorney general obtains a state Supreme Court or federal court ruling that it is constitutional, said House sponsor Rep. Raj Goyle, D-Wichita.

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