Members of the Patriot Guard Riders help shield the family of… (Sun photo by Jed Kirschbaum )
The family of Lance Cpl. Matthew A. Snyder, who was killed last week in Iraq, desperately wanted to keep his death from being politicized.
But a group of protesters had other plans. Waving placards declaring such messages as "Thank God for dead soldiers," seven members of the Westboro Baptist Church from Topeka, Kan., picketed Snyder's service yesterday as they have military funerals across the nation.
Assembled on city property adjacent to the St. John Catholic Church in Westminster, the group held signs, some bearing anti-gay slurs, that declared that war casualties are divine retribution - that God is allowing men and women to die in Iraq because of this country's tolerance of homosexuality.
"We're here because we need to help these families connect the dots," said Shirley Phelps-Roper, an attorney and church member, whose father, Fred Phelps, helped establish Westboro in 1955. "God is punishing this nation."
The church - which has about 75 members, roughly 80 percent of whom are relatives by blood or marriage - protests at funerals without regard to the presumed sexual orientation of the late soldier, Phelps-Roper said. It also blames an assortment of disasters - such as Hurricane Katrina, the Sept. 11 attacks and AIDS - on what its members view as the United States' permissive morals in violation of biblical dictates.
The group claims to have led 22,000 demonstrations since 1991 at parades, funerals and other events. It has only recently started picketing at funerals, Phelps-Roper said. It announced the intention to protest at several funerals of fallen soldiers in Maryland in the past year but did not show.
Before arriving at Snyder's funeral yesterday, the members picketed at the Naval Academy in Annapolis to voice opposition to efforts to eliminate the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy. Tomorrow, they plan protests at military funerals in Colorado and Michigan.
The tactics of the Westboro Baptist Church have offended people and prompted 22 states, including Maryland, to either enact or propose laws to limit the rights of protesters at funerals. Especially offended are military veterans, many of whom showed up in Westminster yesterday on motorcycles to insulate the family members from the protesters.
Some people, however, argue that the soldiers whose funerals are being picketed died to protect the right to free speech, even for groups such as the Westboro Baptist Church.
For legislators - and mourners - it has been a delicate balancing act.
This year, 18 states have introduced legislation to restrict protests of funerals and memorial services, according to Heather Morton, an analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures. Four states - Missouri, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Wisconsin - have enacted such laws this year.
Kansas, the church's home state, has had a law that bans picketing at funerals since 1993. Legislators there amended the law in 1995 and are tweaking it again this year, largely in response to court challenges, Morton said.
Morton said many states are passing laws that create "buffer zones," setting a distance within which protesters are not allowed and times during which they cannot picket. They favor these kinds of limitations because similar laws have withstood court challenges, Morton said.
In Minnesota, House legislators passed a bill that requires protesters to stand back at least 1,000 feet. The Senate there is expected to support the bill, too.
In Maryland, Del. Mary-Dulany James, a Harford County Democrat, and Del. Joan Cadden, an Anne Arundel County Democrat, introduced a bill last month that seeks to ban protests within an hour before and after - as well as during - a funeral or memorial service. The bill would require protesters to stay at least 500 feet away and not block mourners' access.
"Even if common decency and respect for the dead cannot overcome the rights of free speech, surely the very real risks of compounding mental anguish and physical ailments with the additional stress and trauma that comes from disruptive protesters should not be ignored," James told the House Judiciary Committee last month.
But David Rocah, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, said that however wrong the members of the Westboro Baptist Church might be, their rights to free speech must be protected.
"We believe [the Westboro Baptist Church members] are fundamentally misguided," Rocah said. "People, somewhat understandably, find it incomprehensible that the Westboro Baptist Church is targeting military funerals for their protests. ... But the government doesn't get to determine whose speech they like and whose speech they don't like."
Legislation is not the answer, Rocah said.