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Washington restricts protests at funerals

By The Associated Press
02.05.07

OLYMPIA, Wash. — When Gov. Chris Gregoire signed into law a measure that restricts demonstrations at funeral services — a move made largely in response to protests at funerals for U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq — Teresa LaBouff was standing nearby.

LaBouff's brother, Army Maj. Douglas LaBouff, died in January 2006 when the helicopter he was riding in crashed near Tal Afar, Iraq. Besides the grief the family was feeling, they had to worry that members from the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., might picket the funeral, she said.

The church has gained notoriety by demonstrating at military funerals across the country, including Washington state, claiming God is killing American troops in Iraq to punish the U.S. for its tolerance of homosexuality.

"There's so much pain whenever you lose someone," said LaBouff, who lives in Olympia. "I believe in freedom of speech, but I think that we need to go by the philosophy if you can't say something kind, don't say anything at all."

The church did not picket LaBouff's brother's funeral in California, but she wanted to be at the signing of HB 1168 on Feb. 2 to show support. She says she wants other military families to be able to grieve in peace, as her family did.

"We had such a dignified ceremony," LaBouff said. "For anyone to have that taken away from them, breaks my heart."

The law, sponsored by state Rep. Dan Roach, R-Bonney Lake, requires protesters to remain 500 feet or more from funeral processions, the grave site and the funeral home or building where a funeral service is taking place.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Washington is the 30th state with a law limiting protests at funerals.

Because it has an emergency clause, the law took effect when Gregoire signed it on Feb. 2.

Gregoire said she hadn't planned to sign the bill until this week, but with military funerals taking place across the state over the weekend, she wanted to spare those families. She said she was planning to attend a memorial service for Army Reserve Maj. Alan Johnson in Yakima on Feb.3.

"I signed it today to make sure it was available for law enforcement to use tomorrow," Gregoire said on Feb. 2. "I do not want the family of this loved one disrupted tomorrow. I will be there to support them and I want law enforcement to enforce the law."

Johnson, 44, was killed a week ago by a roadside bomb in Iraq. He lived in Yakima with his wife and stepdaughter.

His service was listed on the Kansas church's Web site as one where protesters would be present. But Megan Phelps-Roper, a member of the church, said in a telephone interview on Feb. 2 that the group would not attend the service in Yakima.

"We got a lot of coverage in Yakima in various news media," Phelps-Roper said, noting that there are only 70 members of the church and they have to be selective about which funerals to picket.

She said members of the church would abide by the new law if they return to Washington state.

"We are law abiding citizens," Phelps-Roper said. "So even when they pass unconstitutional laws, because they hate this word of God, we will abide by them."

She added that church members don't have to be within 500 feet of a funeral to get their message across.

"We sit over in Topeka, Kansas, and all those people in Yakima have gotten this message. We can get it done from hundreds of miles away," she said.

Gregoire said the law sends a message to the church members.

"I hope, frankly, they stay out of Washington state," she said. "They are not welcome here."

The bill was a source of contention at the end of last year's Legislature. Republican leaders were angered when the session ended without a Senate vote on the bill, which had passed the House.

Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, downplayed the objections, saying time had simply run out. Brown and House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, had promised the bill would be one of the first voted on this year.


Related

N.D. funeral-protest restrictions become law

Bills to limit demonstrations at services also advance in Montana, Washington legislatures. 01.26.07

Court won't halt enforcement of Mo. funeral-protest law

Without ruling on church member's First Amendment claims, federal judge says state had raised strong arguments in law's defense that can be further developed at trial. 01.29.07

A funeral for free speech?
By Ron Collins & David Hudson Decency respects the dead; First Amendment respects freedom: Which should prevail? 04.17.06

Funeral protests


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