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Published: Friday, 4/28/2006

Michigan may regret passing ban on funeral protests

LANSING, Mich. - If there were a contest for bad taste and outrageous behavior, many Michigan lawmakers would give first prize to the Rev. Fred Phelps' Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church.

Westboro members have been traveling across the nation to disrupt funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq. No, they are not anti-war peace demonstrators. They are haters.

They hate gay people - and hate is not too strong a word. They hate the idea of treating gay people as human beings. They think God is killing our soldiers to punish America for tolerating gays. To get attention, they have been traveling to military funerals nationwide, and have recently descended on three in Michigan.

Chanting, yelling, and waving brightly colored signs that say "God Hates Fags" and "God Hates America," or "Thank God for Dead Soldiers," they are doing their best to traumatize already shaken family members.

The vast majority of Michiganders would probably volunteer to tar and feather the demonstrators, if they knew where to get the tar. But should their protests be outlawed?

Michael Williams, legislative director of the American Legion, the nation's largest veterans organization, thinks so.

"We felt we needed a law to protect the families, and we got behind the idea 100 percent," said Mr. Williams, himself a Vietnam veteran from the army's prestigious 101st airborne division.

Last month, a bill, sponsored by dozens of lawmakers, passed the House on a 102-1 vote. The bill makes protesting within 500 feel of a funeral a felony. Similar legislation was introduced in Congress by U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers (R., Brighton) and is awaiting a hearing.

The Michigan Senate is expected to easily pass the respect for fallen heroes act, once a vote is scheduled, and Gov. Jennifer Granholm has said she will sign it. And that will be that.

Or maybe not. The concerns of the lone house member who voted against it, Macomb County Republican Leon Drolet, may be worth listening to.

"It's not whether I want to stand up and protect the right of some subhuman pig protester at a soldier's funeral. It's to make sure they don't beat us in court. And I'm afraid this kind of legislation is going to be found unconstitutional."

He is not a lawyer. But Kary Moss, executive director of the ACLU, is. And she has similar concerns.

"I think it is possible to write a constitutional law, but I think this bill has problems," she said, and the main one is the distance issue.

"The [U.S.] Supreme Court has made a number of rulings as to how far protesters can be kept away from abortion clinics."

And, as Mr. Drolet noted, the 500-foott standard has never been upheld, anywhere. The courts may eventually be asked to rule on that again, if the Michigan law is passed and challenged.

Reverand Phelps, the Westboro leader, has vowed to challenge any law that keeps him more than 90 feet away.

But while the lawmakers deliberate, a group of resourceful veterans, many of them on motorcycles, have taken matters into their own hands, and have formed something they call the Patriot Guard. They have swooped down and insulated family members from Westboro Baptist Church members at three Michigan funerals, blocking the protest signs with flags, and drowning out their hateful chants with songs like God Bless America.

They may have helped prevent violence, too. At least one father of a slain Marine has said he fears that a nasty comment of the sort in which the Westboro followers specialize might push some family member over the edge.

Perhaps the best solution is not in enacting yet another sure-to-be-challenged law, but in ad hoc groups like the Patriot Guard.

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Republicans At War! Unlike Democrats, who think nothing about fighting messily among themselves, Republicans usually try strenuously to avoid airing their dirty linen in public.

They even have what they call the 11th commandment: Thou Shalt Not Speak Ill of Another Republican.

Last week, however, that was violated by Jerry Zandstra, an underdog candidate for the GOP nomination for the U.S. Senate, who lit into Saul Anuzis, state party chairman, accusing him of secretly supporting Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard, and calling on him to apologize or resign.

Mr. Anuzis refused to do either, called this all a distraction and foolishness, and said that he was not endorsing anyone.

What's the bottom line? Mr. Zandstra has no money, little support, and badly needs voters to notice him.

Mr. Anuzis has indeed been scrupulously neutral, though most party leaders privately do want Mr. Bouchard to win the nomination, seeing him as the strongest potential candidate to defeat U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow.

They are, however, more fixated on the governor's race, where they really think they can unseat Governor Granholm. Most think beating Ms. Stabenow will be a much harder task.



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