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'Rest in peace' law would ban funeral protests

By Charles Sheehan
Tribune staff reporter
Published January 10, 2006, 2:58 PM CST


Fueled by revulsion over a religious group's demonstrations targeting the families and funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, legislation will be introduced in the next month that would make such protests illegal in Illinois, officials said today.


The Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., has picketed scores of funerals for soldiers, including at least six in Illinois, Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn said at a downtown Chicago news conference announcing the bill.

Legislation sponsored by Rep. Brandon Phelps (D-Norris City) would keep protesters 300 feet away from funerals and memorial services for 30 minutes before and afterward.

At least four other states are pursuing similar laws banning such protests.

Kansas already has a law in place, and today a legislative panel in Indiana endorsed a bill that would make disorderly conduct a felony if it occurs within 500 feet of funerals or memorial services.

The bill was also formed in response to a protest by members of the church who dragged U.S. flags on the ground and hurled insults at the family of Army Staff Sgt. Jeremy Doyle, an Indianapolis native killed in Iraq.

The laws raise sticky constitutional questions that legal experts say are likely to reach into the highest levels of the U.S. judicial system.

Though the proposed "Let Them Rest in Peace Act" in Illinois does not mention the Westboro church by name, Quinn acknowledges protests by the followers of Pastor Fred Phelps were the catalyst.

Phelps' family has also targeted the funerals of gays, and on Sunday, the group plans to picket a memorial service for the 12 West Virginia miners who died in an accident last week.

The Westboro Baptist Church, which is made up mostly of people related to Phelps, say the U.S. is doomed because it condones homosexuality, said Shirley Phelps-Roper, Phelps' daughter and an attorney for the church.

The explosives that kill American soldiers are a manifestation of God's wrath against the country, as was the mine blast, she said.

"This is a nation of idolatry that is run rampant with adultery and fornication," Phelps-Roper said.

The church has vowed to challenge any legislation that it believes infringes on First Amendment rights protecting religion and free speech.
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