Protests at soldiers’ funerals by the anti-gay Rev. Fred Phelps of Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., prompted the measure
OKLAHOMA CITY A bill to restrict protests at funerals sailed to approval in the Oklahoma Senate Monday after one senator said it was un-American to picket at services for fallen soldiers.
Senator Mary Easley’s bill now goes to the House for consideration. It is among five measures introduced in reaction to protests by members of a Topeka, Kan., church that denounces U.S. soldiers who fight in Afghanistan and Iraq for a country that has gay rights.
Easley’s bill would make it a misdemeanor to protest within 500 feet of a funeral and prohibits demonstrations an hour before and an hour after services.
The vote was 46-0 for the legislation.
Westboro Baptist Church has demonstrated outside various churches in Oklahoma where services were held for fallen soldiers.
Senator Mike Mazzie, a Republican, said the group has shouted obscenities during the solemn occasions and he finds its activities “‘”‘despicable, un-American and unconscionable.”
Mazzie said Westboro protests, such as one staged in January near a church where services were held for 1st Sgt. Tobias C. Meister, are hurtful to family members.
Easley patterned her bill largely after a Kansas law and says she believes it will pass constitutional muster. Although restricting Westboro’s activities appears to have universal support among House and Senate members, some lawmakers have warned that sponsors need to make sure the bill does not infringe upon First Amendment rights.
Westboro operates an anti-gay website and its members often carry signs at funerals condemning soldiers and saying they were struck down by God for fighting for a country that tolerates homosexuality.
The church, headed by the Rev. Fred Phelps, a disbarred attorney, also expresses anti-Semitic views. It is not affiliated with mainstream Baptist organizations.
At a hearing last week, funeral director Ronnie Felts said he is worried the protests could escalate into violence.
At recent funerals, a bikers group has showed up to lend support to family members.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition of February 17, 2006.