MADISON, Wis. Randy and Carrie Wendling laid their son to rest while protesters outside the church claimed the soldier’s death was an act of God to punish the United States.
Other military families might not have to face similar scenes after Gov. Jim Doyle signed legislation yesterday banning protests at funerals.
Doyle, who has attended 43 funerals for Wisconsin soldiers, noted he has seen protesters like those at the funeral of Wisconsin National Guard Spc. Michael Wendling.
Calling the protesters’ behavior shameful, Doyle said he believed the legislation, S.B. 525, struck a balance between the rights of those wishing to express their viewpoints and those trying to mourn the loss of a loved one.
A lawyer representing those who have protested at the funerals of Wisconsin soldiers said they likely would file a legal challenge to preserve their First Amendment rights if the law is enforced against them.
But Carrie Wendling said she didn’t care much for their claims to free speech.
“Anything they have to say is nothing compared to Michael,” she said at a Capitol ceremony.
Wisconsin is among more than a dozen states that have considered similar legislation following a series of protests by members of Topeka, Kan.-based Westboro Baptist Church. The church’s followers believe soldiers’ deaths are God’s vengeance for the nation’s tolerance of homosexuality.
South Dakota’s governor signed legislation banning protests at funerals last week.
Wisconsin’s ban criminalizes protests that take place within 500 feet of a funeral one hour before or after the service. First-time violators face up to $10,000 in fines and nine months in jail. A second offense could bring up to a 3 ½-year jail term.
Attorney Shirley Phelps-Roper, whose father leads the Kansas church, said protesters planned to see what each state does before deciding how best to proceed. But she said any attempts to hinder their right to protest at a funeral in Wisconsin could prompt them to take legal action sooner than they anticipated.
“If we were standing outside these places with ‘God loves this soldier’ signs and ‘God bless America,’ we would not be having this conversation,” she said. “Instead, we’re telling this nation God is pouring his wrath out on this disobedient nation. This message is not going to be hindered by this move.”