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Funeral protest causes furor among legislators

  • Article by: Bob Von Sternberg
  • Star Tribune
  • February 24, 2006 - 8:29 PM

Bipartisan outrage erupted Friday over an anti-gay demonstration outside a funeral in Anoka a day earlier, giving a boost to a legislative effort to control such picketing in Minnesota.

Two similar bills have been introduced in the House to prohibit such protests within 300 feet of the site of a service, survivors' homes or anywhere along the route of a funeral cortege. An identical bill is to be introduced in the Senate when the Legislature reconvenes next week, and sponsors predicted widespread bipartisan support.

In addition, Gov. Tim Pawlenty said Friday he strongly supports the legislation after seeing the protest held outside the funeral of Army Cpl. Andrew Kemple, who died Feb. 12 in Iraq. The protesters contend that God is killing American soldiers because they fight for a country that tolerates homosexuality.

"I was appalled by the behavior and message and insensitivity of the protesters," Pawlenty said. "You would hope they would use better judgment ... It's heartbreaking to see the effect on the families."

He said he supports a bill that would "give people space when they are grieving" and require demonstrators to "stay at a distance that's not disruptive."

The hourlong protest Thursday by six members of a small nondenominational church in Kansas ignited a talk show firestorm in the Twin Cities Friday, including on Pawlenty's weekly radio show. The picketing was condemned for hours by hosts and callers alike.

The bill was the brainchild of Rep. Marty Seifert, R-Marshall. It was prompted not by Thursday's protest but by adoption of a similar law Feb. 13 in South Dakota.

"These people have been showing up all over the country, and I figured these characters would be over here soon, but they beat us to the punch," said Seifert, House majority whip. "What they're doing flies in the face of Minnesota values."

The Kansas church members are followers of the Rev. Fred Phelps, who has preached a fervently anti-gay message for decades. Since the Iraq war began, his group's focus has shifted from the funerals of AIDS patients to services for soldiers killed in action.

In the past few months, volunteers calling themselves Patriot Guard Riders also have shown up at military funerals to counter the Kansans' message.

A companion House bill has been introduced by Rep. Dan Severson, R-Sauk Rapids, and a Senate version will be introduced next week by Sen. Don Betzold, DFL-Fridley.

"It's a sad commentary that we have to do something like this, and nobody's saying we're going to repeal the First Amendment," Betzold said. "But we're just saying let these people have some space."

Independently, a courier service owner from Brooklyn Park began circulating a petition Friday, demanding just such a state law. He plans to present the petitions to state officials next week. "What they're doing ain't right, but you can't take away people's right to protest," said Billy Bishop. "This law should be passed, like, today."

Similar legislation is being considered by at least 14 states. Phelps has denounced them as unconstitutional, "offspring of passion, prejudice and putrid pandering to the rabble."

But the law, if enacted, is unlikely to face a constitutional challenge by the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota because it wouldn't directly violate any protester's right to free speech, said Chuck Samuelson, the group's executive director.

"Placing restrictions of time, place or manner [of protesting], but not on the content of speech, can serve a compelling public interest," he said. "We generally don't like these things and part of me says leave [him] alone and he'll go away. But this is not a constitutional issue, it's a public policy issue."

Staff writer Conrad deFiebre contributed to this report.

Bob von Sternberg • 612-673-7184

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