Bush Signs Law to Bar Military Funeral Protests

Bush Signs Law to Bar Military Funeral Protests

(CNSNews.com) - President Bush has signed into a law an amendment to U.S. law protecting military funerals from protests like those staged by a controversial Kansas church that characterizes soldiers' deaths as divine punishment for homosexuality.

The new amendment prohibits protestors from demonstrating within 150 feet of a funeral and within an hour of the memorial service. It provides a year in jail and/or an undetermined fine for violators.

The rule applies to funerals at non-federal cemeteries, joining legislation passed in May 2006 that bans demonstrations at national cemeteries such as Arlington National Cemetery outside Washington, D.C.

The prohibition will primarily affect the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC), a small congregation from Topeka, Kan., that pickets at military funerals because it says homosexuals are taking over the U.S. armed forces and the nation.

The church, led by Rev. Fred Phelps, says it believes God allows soldiers to die as punishment against America for allowing homosexuality to exist. It protests at military funerals across the country with signs featuring slogans like "God Hates Fags" and "Thank God for Dead Soldiers."

On its website, the church celebrates the U.S. death toll in Iraq and says it prays for the number to increase 1,000-fold.

Church spokesmen did not respond to email requests for comment Tuesday, and telephone calls placed to the church's headquarters were not answered.

In a statement on its website, WBC promises to continue protesting in spite of laws prohibiting the demonstrations.

"We will not go away," it states, arguing that the church members are victims of persecution. "It's only going to get worse. The more you persecute God's people, the more wrath He pours out on you!"

The new law could also restrict members of the Patriot Guard Riders, a group of motorcycle enthusiasts that has organized protests to counter those of the WBC. Members of the group typically position their motorcycles between protesters and funeral participants, sometimes revving their engines to drown out WBC chants.

Patriot Guard Riders says it only attends funerals by invitation, although the law does not explicitly provide an exemption for demonstrations that are approved by funeral planners.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who sponsored the Senate version of the bill, said in a statement earlier this month that "our soldiers, our veterans and those fallen heroes who have sacrificed their lives for the good of our country deserve to be laid to rest with dignity."

He said the new rules "will help put an end to the reprehensible actions of those who have insisted on disrupting military funerals across the nation."

But the restriction may face challenges. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has challenged similar prohibitions in Kentucky and Missouri. The group has not said if it plans to challenge the federal rules.

In the Kentucky case, the ACLU argued that the state "has an interest in showing respect and compassion for the deceased and for their families, but we cannot allow lawmakers to trample upon the First Amendment in the process."

U.S. District Judge Karen Caldwell ruled in favor of the challenge, saying the Kentucky law was too broad and could not be enforced because the 300-foot restriction applicable there "is large enough that it would restrict communications intended for the general public on a matter completely unrelated to the funeral."

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