God Hates the First Amendment
Fred “God Hates Fags” Phelps and his followers plan to protest the funerals for the victims of the I-35w bridge collapse
first published August 8, 2007
The Minnesota Monitor reports on August 7, 2007:
The Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., plans to stage protests at funerals of victims of the 35W bridge collapse to state that God made the bridge fall because he hates America, and especially Minnesota, because of its tolerance of homosexuality.
The Southern Poverty Law Center has more in the article “Anti-Gay Extremism: Phelps’ Latest Tactic Shocks Foes From Left to Right” and the Topeka Capital Journal offers an in-depth look at some of the legal issues and history in “Fred Phelps versus Topeka” by Rick Musser.
Micheal Moore confronts Fred Phelps with the “Sodomobile” in the “The Awful Truth:”
Fred Phelps really pisses me off. It’s not just that he is an incredibly disgusting human being who has picketed funerals that include those for Matt Shepard and soldiers killed in the line of duty, and that he now apparently plans to picket the funerals for the victims of the I-35w bridge collapse.
He also pisses me off because he makes me feel all contradicted with my notions of free speech versus my notions of the right of a community to be free from harassment, disorderly conduct, cross-burnings and the like. This guy is kind of like a nazi rally, and they have a right to march last I checked. So does the KKK, and these days, it’s more often just a couple people marching and hundreds of counter-protesters showing up to express themselves right back.
So it would seem like they have every right to their speech, except, instead of the political expression happening at a march, it’s at a funeral. Is that different? Do they have a right to disrupt a solemn and personal occasion for a political purpose? Do they need a permit for that kind of thing?
In lots of jurisdictions, if you run around naked in public, you could get arrested. Arrest is probably even more likely if you did such a thing near a funeral. You could yell all you’d like about “Breasts not Bombs” and “Girls Gone Wild Against The War,” but I’d put the smart money on a trip down to the station.
So can the police arrest Fred Phelps for his conduct if he disrupts a funeral with day-glo signs that say things like “God Hates Fags” and “God Hates America”? He looks like a protester because he’s got signs, and he certainly says he has a political message. But does a political message somehow make him immune from prosecution for his disruptive and harassing conduct?
He has already been banned from military funerals by an act of Congress. ThinkProgress reports:
Phelps’ protests at military funerals forced Congress to pass the Respect for America’s Fallen Heroes Act in 2006, which “bars protests within 500 feet of a military cemetery from 60 minutes before to 60 minutes after a funeral if those protests involve disruptive noises or other disturbances.”
So why is there an issue about keeping him away from non-military funerals? Why did we need a new law to keep him from disrupting military funerals in the first place?
I am curious about what people think about this. Should he have a right to protest at funerals?
UPDATE: Dan Savage writes on August 17, 2007:
Anti-gay Christian activists are crashing services at churches in Ohio that welcome, affirm, tolerate, etc., gays and lesbians.
… Could you imagine the shit storm that would ensue if gays and lesbians showed up at an anti-gay church and disrupted services? I can. ACT-UP—the Aids Coalition to Unleash Power—shut down St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City in 1989 to protest the church’s opposition to AIDS education, condoms, and its attacks on homosexuals. It was hugely controversial, and roundly attacked by conservative and mainstream politicians and pundits. Bringing a protest into a house of worship—during services!—just wasn’t kosher, no matter the stakes.
UPDATE: From the AP on October 31, 2007:
A grieving father won a nearly $11 million verdict Wednesday against a fundamentalist Kansas church that pickets military funerals out of a belief that the war in Iraq is a punishment for the nation’s tolerance of homosexuality.
Albert Snyder of York, Pa., sued the Westboro Baptist Church for unspecified damages after members demonstrated at the March 2006 funeral of his son, Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, who was killed in Iraq.
… Snyder claimed the protests intruded upon what should have been a private ceremony and sullied his memory of the event.
The church members testified they are following their religious beliefs by spreading the message that soldiers are dying because the nation is too tolerant of homosexuality. Their attorneys maintained in closing arguments Tuesday that the burial was a public event and that even abhorrent points of view are protected by the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of speech and religion.
Earlier, church members staged a demonstration outside the federal courthouse. Church founder Fred Phelps held a sign reading “God is your enemy,” while Shirley Phelps-Roper stood on an American flag and carried a sign that read “God hates fag enablers.” Members of the group sang “God Hates America” to the tune of “God Bless America.”