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Leaders want to halt funeral protests

By Kevin Hanson

The Courier-Herald

Followers of a radical Kansas church leader have staged brazen protests at the funerals of fallen American soldiers, an act so outrageous it has prompted legislation in nearly a dozen states.

Washington is among those states looking at curbing demonstrations - while not prohibiting freedom of speech - and the legislative maneuvering centers on the Plateau.

At the heart of the debate in the Evergreen State are Lake Tapps resident Chuck Lawrence and Bonney Lake lawmaker Dan Roach, who serves the 31st District in the state House of Representatives.

At issue are protests originally prompted by the Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church. The church espouses hatred of homosexuality, to the point of celebrating the deaths of gay citizens. As part of its anti-gay doctrine, the church has focused its enmity on the U.S. military because of its “don't ask, don't tell” philosophy.

Lawrence, who grew up as a self-described “Army brat” and later served two tours of duty in Vietnam, learned of the Kansas church through his work as an advocate for U.S. military veterans. When he found out protests were planned for funerals in the Puget Sound area, he quickly put out the call to other vets; they responded, lined the streets outside churches where services were planned and kept protesters in the background.

But the hate movement isn't going away, he warns.

“It's despicable, it's vile and it's real,” Lawrence said, explaining that protesters learned from earlier mistakes and successfully applied for a permit to picket in front of a Yakima church.

At funerals for those killed in the line of duty, he said, protesters stand on an American flag and hold signs for family members to see. The message, Lawrence said, usually revolves around the protester's belief that God is happy to see soldiers die.

“Clearly, a grieving family does not need to see this,” Lawrence said.

Looking for an ally, Lawrence turned to Roach. The Republican lawmaker agreed that protesters were going too far and drafted legislation - billed as the Washington Rest In Peace Act - putting limits on their actions.

The protests, Roach said, were occurring “at funerals where they were laying to rest someone who had given their life for their country. Right on the site were protesters praising the bombs that blew the victims apart and verbally demoralizing veterans attending the funerals.

“Imagine attending a funeral, putting your son or daughter to rest who has fought and died for our country, only to have people essentially spit on the grave. It's something that just should not be allowed.”

Roach said the protests are not widespread, but are happening enough that “it is becoming a problem.”

Roach introduced House Bill 3293, which would extend the state's disorderly conduct law, a misdemeanor, to funeral protests. Under terms of his measure, protesters demonstrating within 500 feet of a funeral could by charged with disorderly conduct.

“This bill would simply make protesting on the spot against the law,” Roach said. “We need to let these families grieve. They've been through enough by losing a loved one. The last thing they need is for someone to be in their faces, protesting, or spitting on the grave site.”

Roach said he has taken into consideration possible concerns over the freedom of assembly and speech.

“There are rules and regulations already in place for public protests and picketing. You may need a permit, for example, or be required to stand behind a barrier. Those regulations do not impinge on the people's right to express themselves,” he said. “I just want to make sure that families are able to mourn in peace.”

Similar measures have been proposed in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska, Kentucky, South Dakota, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Oklahoma. Kansas, because it's home to the Westboro Baptist Church, has already adopted a funeral protest law.

Roach's bill hit an immediate roadblock, as it came too late to receive a hearing in front of the House Criminal Justice and Corrections Committee. The proposal has received general support from other legislators, however, giving Roach and Lawrence hope for an alternate route.

Lawrence is hoping citizens will rally and contact their local legislators, offering support for the Rest In Peace Act. Speaker of the House Frank Chopp has the power to suspend the rules and give Roach's bill a hearing.

Kevin Hanson can be reached at khanson@courierherald.com.

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