A new bill on veterans affairs is waiting for President Barack Obama’s signature. If passed, this bill would expand restrictions on protests at military funerals, such as the ones carried out by the Westboro Baptist Church of Kansas.
The bill, which received final Congressional approval Tuesday, demands protesters stay at least 300 feet away from military funerals starting two hours before the ceremony begins and two hours after it ends. If protesters violate this rule, they could face fines and up to two years in prison.
Members of the Westboro Kansas church have garnered worldwide attention thanks to their disruptive anti-gay protests at various funerals for United States military members. CNN attempted to email the church for comment on Thursday, but there was no response.
The conservative church is led by pastor Fred Phelps, who believes God punishes America for “the sin of homosexuality through events including soldiers’ deaths.” Church members ensure Americans know their stance on the issue by yelling and holding signs at funerals for soldiers across the United States. Signs they frequently use include the phrases: “Thank God for dead soldiers,” “God blew up the troops,” and “AIDS cures fags.”
Church members plan to continue their protests. The church's website reflects no opinions or statements about the new law, and there is no information regarding whether or not they will challenge it.
Last year, the church won an appeal at the U.S. Supreme Court that “tested the competing constitutional rights of free speech and privacy.” The case concerned a protest the church held outside of a funeral for Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder in Maryland in 2006.
The church was sued by Snyder’s family in 2007 for invasion of privacy, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and civil conspiracy. The jury granted the family $2.9 million for compensatory damages as well as $8 million in punitive damages. The $8 million was later reduced to $5 million.
But the church wasn’t going down without a fight. In 2008, it appealed the case to a federal appeals court, which concluded that the church’s First Amendment rights had been violated.
The case ended up in the Supreme Court, which decided, by an 8-1 vote, that the members of the church had the right to promote a “broad-based message on public matters such as wars.”
Members of the church claim their broad message is directed toward those who serve in the military. In the church’s eyes, the soldiers deserve to die because they are fighting for a country “that tolerates homosexuality.”
Fred Phelps and his family make up most of the church. Phelps has 13 children, 54 grandchildren, and seven great-grandchildren. In a 2006 CNN interview, the pastor said he was an “old-time” gospel preacher. He said, “You can’t preach the Bible without preaching the hatred of God.”