Law Takes Aim at Westboro Baptist

New federal law restricting protests at military funerals raises constitutionality concerns

By Justin Snow
Published on August 14, 2012, 7:15pm | Comments

A bill signed into law earlier this week just made life a bit more difficult for members of the Westboro Baptist Church.

President Barack Obama signed the Honoring America's Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act on Monday, Aug. 13, awarding a range of benefits to service members, but also putting in place restrictions on protests at military funerals.

Specifically, the new law requires protests at military funerals be held at least 300 feet away and forbids protesters from blocking entrances or exits within a 500-foot radius. Moreover, new restrictions ban demonstrations from taking place during the two hours before or two hours after a funeral.

For the Westboro Baptist Church, which has become infamous for holding signs that read, among other things, ''God Hates Fags'' outside of military funeral and blaming American casualties as punishment for acceptance of gay people, the law is a blow to one of their favorite tactics.

Obama signed the bill into law in the Oval Office, stating, "We have a moral sacred duty to our men and women in uniform.''

''The graves of our veterans are hallowed grounds," Obama added, according to a pool report.

The law comes a year after the Supreme Court ruled that the Westboro Baptist Church and their protests were protected by the First Amendment. To the concern of freedom of speech advocates, it appears these new restrictions override that ruling.

''We have some serious First Amendment concerns with the law,'' said Gabe Rottman, legislative counsel and policy advisor for the American Civil Liberties Union.

In an interview with Metro Weekly, Rottman said the ACLU is particularly concerned that the provision of the law appears to directly target the Westboro Baptist Church.

''The First Amendment problem with it is that it looks like it could be used to target protests that, even though they're repellent, they're still totally peaceful and they're dealing with legitimate political speech, no matter how offensive,'' stated Rottman.

Rottman argues that the law is not about protecting the solemnity of military funerals, which are currently protected under private property and disorderly conduct laws, but is about censoring offensive and unpopular speech. Moreover, it appears counter protests, including a common tactic to create a human wall to block mourners' view of the group's signs, may also be restricted by the law.

Although the ACLU is currently litigating against a Missouri law similar to the new federal law, though smaller in scope, Rottman said the ACLU is ''strongly considering a challenge'' to the new law.

Both the White House and the Department of Justice declined to address the First Amendment questions surrounding the new restrictions.

Although the ACLU has questioned the law's constitutionality, others have questioned what they view as the law's limited scope.

''They're deeply, deeply offensive people,'' Cathy Renna said of the Westboro Baptist Church. Renna, a media-relations expert, dealt with the group while a spokesperson for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) in 1998 when Matthew Shepard was murdered.

''Out of respect for a soldier who has died, or someone who's died of AIDS, or someone who was killed in a hate crime, I think what would be fair is a level playing field,'' she said.

Renna noted that the Westboro Baptist Church has been active for decades, but only received national attention when its members began targeting not just gay Americans but all Americans – particularly 9/11 victims and military personnel.

''Really, their original targets were gay people,'' Renna told Metro Weekly. ''I'm the last person to say they shouldn't have their First Amendment right to say whatever they want. I'm not saying they shouldn't be allowed to protest, but we might want to create boundaries for safety and respect.''

Nevertheless, the Westboro Baptist Church, which has been labeled a hate group by both the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League, said the law would have no effect on the church's tactics.

''We are still going to be out there at soldiers' funerals warning people that America is doomed,'' said Steve Drain, who, with his wife and daughters, are the only members of the church not related to founder Fred Phelps.

In an interview with ABC News, Drain said their protests will continue in a ''lawful fashion.''

''We will stand 301 feet away. There is prime preaching real estate at 301 feet,'' stated Drain. ''My voice can carry a lot farther than 300 feet. That is only the size of a football field.''

When Congress approved the bill two weeks ago, church members were vehement in their opposition.

Fred Phelps's daughter, Margie Phelps, responded to initial reports of the bill's passage via Twitter, writing, ''Smile. Let's see where God takes this, k? #FagsStillDoomNations.''