Colorado lawmakers are moving quickly in their efforts to outlaw protests at funerals, and the source of the fury Rev. Fred Phelps is savoring the prospect.
State Rep. Michael Merrifield introduced the ban shortly after Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church followers came to Colorado Springs in mid-March to protest the funeral of Sgt. Gordon F. Misner II. Westboro members have recently stepped up their pickets around the country, claiming that soldiers are dying because God is punishing America for an accepting attitude toward homosexuality.
As a result, at least 27 states, and the U.S. Congress, either have adopted or are considering bans of all funeral protests. Colorado's proposal, as currently written, would outlaw protests within 500 feet of a funeral about 1 times the length of a standard football field. The ban would be in place from one hour before to one hour after the services, and violators could face a $750 fine and six months in jail.
As of press time, 34 other lawmakers had signed on to the bill as co-sponsors more than the number required to actually pass the measure into law if it comes to a vote. Still, it must pass muster with the House Judicial Committee, which is scheduled to consider it this week.
"I'm gonna have to cajole [committee members] to believe, as I do, that it won't stifle free speech," says Merrifield, a Democrat from Manitou Springs. "It's limiting, not shutting them up; it's dictating when and where they can spew their message of hate."
Merrifield, and lawmakers in other states, have cited as inspiration for their legislation other so-called "bubble" laws that have been upheld as constitutional. However, one such law, which restricts protesters from interfering with people entering or leaving abortion clinics, specifies an 8-foot perimeter a far cry from the 500 feet in Merrifield's bill.
A similar federal ban was introduced in Congress last week and is on the fast track to the president's desk.Called the Respect for America's Fallen Heroes Act, that proposal also specifies a 500-foot ban. Other states have introduced proposals that include looser distance restrictions for the protesters including 100 feet and 300 feet.
Free-speech challenges to the laws which have already passed in Oklahoma, Missouri, Wisconsin and Indiana are almost certain.
Last month, as Phelps stood on the sidewalk a block from Misner's funeral service at Evergreen Memorial Chapel, he noted that his family most of his 13 children are lawyers successfully sued their home state of Kansas after a similar law was enacted there in the 1990s. Phelps said he keeps a framed oversized copy of the check for $170,000 that he received from the state to repay his legal fees.
Lately, when they haven't been targeting funerals, the Westboro protesters have been showing up at state capitol buildings. Last month in Denver, they jeered the "Colorado Taliban" for attempting to quash their free speech, and unveiled a song they had crafted to the tune of John Denver's "Rocky Mountain High." One of the verses went like this:
"Oh, you Colorado Rocky Mountain beasts / For your own sins, you've embraced filthy fags / You scream and wave your flags / They're still coming home in bags / Rocky Mountain brute beasts (Colorado) / Rocky Mountain brute beasts (Colorado)."