Tuesday, January 10, 2006

fred phelps strikes again, and the states strike back

word has it that the reverend fred phelps, who probably considers himself god's favorite gay-basher, was in indiana again for another protest at a military funeral. they became famous long ago for their disgusting protests at the funerals of homosexuals, some of whom had been murdered because of their sexual orientation. now phelps and his family have moved on to protesting at military funerals, claiming that the reason GIs are dying is because the US is too accepting of gays. and according to their website, they even plan to protest the funerals of the west virginia coal miners who died last week! that is going to be ugly.

i posted about this lunacy last time they were in the state, so normally i might not have posted again. these are the sickest, vilest kind of bigots, and they don't deserve the attention.

but those protests really get under people's skin. their disgusting, hateful rhetoric is bad enough when you read it on their website (i refuse to link to it, but it's called "god hates fags" if you've never heard of it); having to deal with it your loved one's funeral is more than anyone should ever have to take.

people nationwide were outraged when they heard the story about phelps's military funeral protests last summer. and now, in direct response to those incidents, at least five states have passed or are considering legislation to outlaw protests at funerals. unsurprisingly, phelps's home state of kansas already has such a law. illinois and indiana are also considering such laws.

from WISH-tv, about indiana's proposed law:

The committee approved Senate Bill No. 5 authored by Sen. Brent Steele (R-Bedford) that says protesters must be 500 feet from a funeral service or procession as well as making disorderly conduct at a funeral a felony.

"We're not saying that they can't protest. We're not talking about the volume of their protest. We're not talking about any particular group protesting. It could be any group protesting any person's funeral," he said.

the AP story tells it a little differently:

Steele said people could still protest funerals, but not in a "fighting or tumultuous manner" within 500 feet of them, funeral processions, burials or memorial services.

Disorderly conduct is defined by Indiana law as engaging in fighting or tumultuous conduct; making unreasonable noise and continuing to do so after being asked to stop; or disrupting a lawful assembly of people. Under Steele's bill, it would be a Class D felony carrying a maximum three-year prison term and $10,000 fine if committed within 500 feet of funeral activities.

looking at the actual text of the bill, we see that the more nuanced explanation in the AP is the more accurate version. after the bill has passed (and it will), and assuming it withstands challenges to its constitutionality, it will still be legal to peacefully, calmly protest right in front a funeral, but if you're going to be a dick about it, you need to be 500' away.

i'm not entirely sure how to feel about the bill. on its face, it does appear that it might be content-neutral, so it might not be unconstitutional. still, free speech restrictions (especially restrictions on protest) give me pause. and it's not difficult to imagine the law being abused to restrict legitimate speech: peaceful, polite protesters being arrested for "disrupting a lawful assembly", for example (i'm envisioning political funerals here). not to mention that it could potentially be used against actual mourners. we've all heard stories, if not attended the funerals, where people who are drunk and/or half-mad with grief "engage in fighting or in tumultuous conduct" or "make unreasonable noise and continue to do so after being asked to stop" or generally make a scene. presumably, it wouldn't be enforced against the truly grieving, but then that would make it a content-based restriction, and hence unconstitutional.

still, if fred phelps and his kin protested a funeral of one of my loved ones, i would totally freak out.

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