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Published: Wednesday, 5/10/2006

Bill would restrict funeral protests

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU

COLUMBUS - Protesters who choose funerals to make their point will have to stay at least 300 feet away from mourners under a bill headed for the House floor today.

The bill is a response to the uproar caused by protests across the nation by Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church, which claims weapons of mass destruction, Hurricane Katrina, the 9-11 attacks, and the deaths of soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan are due to God's wrath over homosexuality.

"[The soldiers] fought bravely and died an honorable death, and their funeral must be held sacred...," Russell C. Goodwin Jr., a veteran and president of the gay-rights group Stonewall Democrats of Central Ohio, said yesterday.

"I could not believe that any God-fearing man would do such a thing."

The church, however, said it has continued its protests in states like Michigan that have passed such legislation and will be back in Ohio for the next military funeral. Reached in Kansas, Shirley Phelps-Roper, church leader Fred Phelps' daughter, called the state General Assembly the "Ohio Taliban."

"We will find ways around your laws," she said. "The Supreme Court spoke to this and said you may not move us out of sight and sound of our target. If you don't like the words or signs on the public street, your first option is to drink a frosty mug of shut ... up and avert your eyes. Your second option is to get your own picket sign and stand out there."

The church did not testify against the bill in the House, but did rally earlier this year at the Statehouse after protesting at a funeral in Cincinnati.

Ohio's "Let Them Rest in Peace Act" would extend to other forms of protest current law limiting picketing to outside a 300-foot radius of a funeral, moving funeral procession, or burial service.

The bill passed the House State Government Committee unanimously yesterday. The House is expected to approve it today, and the Senate is expected to forward it to Gov. Bob Taft before the chamber recesses for the summer before Memorial Day.

"It's not about free speech. It's about location," said the bill's sponsor, Rep. John Boccieri (D., New Middletown), a pilot who has served four tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"This bill does nothing to curb the content of speech," he said. "What it does say is you need to be at a respectful distance. The larger question is where does the right of free speech end and where does privacy begin. I believe it begins 300 feet away from the family."

He said there have been about nine such protests in Ohio. The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio has cautioned against legislation that restricts speech to quell an unpopular message.

The church had threatened to protest at last month's military funeral of a Gibsonburg man who was killed in a motorcycle accident near his military base in Colorado while en route to a vigil for a fellow soldier.

Army Spec. Robert Clark was a member of the Patriot Guard Riders, which travels to military funerals to serve as shields between loud protesters and solemn mourners.

But no protesters showed.

In Washington yesterday, the U.S. House also voted to crack down on protests at military funerals, responding to Westboro Baptist Church.

The bill, which applies to funerals at Arlington National Cemetery near Washington and Veterans Administration cemeteries, passed 308-3 as lawmakers recounted incidents in their districts over the past year of mourning families enduring taunts and insults.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

Contact Jim Provance at:

jprovance@theblade.com

or 614-221-0496.



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