THEIR calling card reads "God Hates Fags." They spread the message to anyone within earshot and proselytize that it's payback time for believers in tolerance toward homosexuals. The small group of fundamental extremists from Topeka, Kan., like to show up at high-profile funerals to wag a finger at mourners and yell that God's wrath knows no bounds for those who don't hate gays like He does.
Rev. Fred Phelps and members of his Westboro Baptist Church are in-your-face wackos determined to rub salt into the fresh wounds of grieving families. During the 1990s they were drawn to the funerals of AIDS victims, which they picketed with placards denouncing the dead.
Their tactics produced the sought- after public revulsion and media attention. But their brand of offensive evangelism was strictly small time.
It couldn't compete with the enmity spewing from the TV pulpits of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. That prickly pair are light years ahead of the Kansas kooks in casting God as the heavy who reveals his displeasure with mankind in everything from 9/11, to Katrina, mining disasters, and even Ariel Sharon's stroke.
Still, even amateur hate-mongers can aspire to the big leagues of bigotry by finding just the right niche from which to twist Providence into man-made pain. But the Kansas pastor and flock needed a new outlet for their venom.
They concluded that public sympathy for AIDS victims, or even the murdered prey of gay bashers, is too soft to sustain the passion generated against their funeral protests. Regrettably, they're right. The tolerance Americans afford homosexuals does have its limits.
But everybody supports the troops, and when another U.S. casualty comes home from Iraq or Afghanistan, everybody is sympathetic to the terrible loss. So military funerals became the new target of rancor for the extreme Bible thumpers with extreme interpretations of the Good Book.
Members of the congregation have begun making appearances at the funerals of Iraqi war casualties. They claim American soldiers are dying for a country that harbors homosexuals and death is their comeuppance for belonging to such a sinful society.
The protesters wave signs dripping with hostility that say "Thank God for dead soldiers," or "Thank God for body bags." How crazy is that? Consider the source.
The Kansas crusaders are grotesque jerks whose behavior in the name of God is an abomination. But even grotesque, foul-mouthed jerks are entitled to protected free speech in this country.
It works for the Falwells, Robertsons, Farrakhans, and the Nazi nuts who messed with Toledo. Hey, you should see some of the e-mail I get from people who disagree with me. Yet who could begrudge them their freedom of speech to resort to gutter crawling, just as I still have a right to express my opinion in this column.
It kills me to be so magnanimous toward those whose knuckles must surely drag when they walk, but I must.
What's really puzzling about all this is the lack of free speech awareness on the part of at least 14 states, including Ohio. In reaction to the Topeka gnat's campaign, politicians have put legislation on the fast track to limit when and where people may protest at funerals.
Blocking access to people engaged in public expression on public sidewalks - no matter how twisted the people or their message - is unconstitutional. If offensive speech can be prohibited within 300 feet of a funeral 30 minutes before and after the event, as an Ohio bill sponsored by Rep. John Boccieri stipulates, what's to stop anti-war protesters from being silenced if they camp too close for comfort to government leaders?
What's to stop the further muzzling of protesters outside abortion clinics? Where exactly do you draw the next freedom of speech line in the sand-aside from shouting fire in a crowded theater?
The New Middletown Democrat calls the anti-gay demonstrations at military funerals "disruptive, inappropriate, and appalling."
Few would disagree.
But when Mr. Boccieri ventures that "free-speech rights end where the family's right to privacy begins," he is on shaky constitutional ground.
Like it or not, the freedom to scream "The Emperor has no clothes" outside the Bush compound in Texas or sneer "Thank God for dead soldiers" at military funerals are one and the same under the First Amendment.
Legislating limits on any aspect of protected speech limits us all.