ST. LOUIS — Members of an anti-gay fundamentalist group known for their protests of military funerals will have to stay a bit farther away from such services under a measure Gov. Pat Quinn signed into law Sunday as the Illinois State Fair observed its Veterans Day.
In contrast with the shouting members of the Topeka, Kan.-based Westboro Baptist Church who often engage in outside funerals, Quinn quietly signed off on the “Let Them Rest In Peace Act,” which pushes protestors back another 100 feet to 300 feet — the equivalent of a football field’s length — at military funerals. Protests remain banned 30 minutes before and after funeral services.
A Westboro member labeled the new law as unconstitutional and said the church would continue its protests as it fights the laws in court.
“They can make (the ban distance) 100 miles, and it changes exactly nothing,” said Margie Phelps, a lawyer and the daughter of Westboro pastor Fred Phelps. “You all are delusional if you think you’re going to win this one.”
“Every family has a fundamental right to conduct a funeral with reverence and dignity,” said Quinn, who as the state’s lieutenant governor in 2006 stumped for the previous version of the law, which set the protest boundary at 200 feet away.
The new law “ensures that the families of those who have given their lives for our country can grieve without harassment. It is our duty to honor their sacrifice by ensuring they are remembered with respect and solemnity,” Quinn said.
The legislation is the latest passed by state lawmakers intent on stopping or at least blunting the protests. The Illinois chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union opposed it, and it comes after the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in March that found Westboro’s protests are constitutionally protected free speech. All but one justice sided with Westboro, which for years has stirred outrage with raucous demonstrations contending God is punishing the military for the nation’s tolerance of homosexuality.
In that case, as in many other protests, the Westboro members — largely Fred Phelps’ family — held crudely worded signs with provocative messages.
Chief Justice John Roberts, in his opinion for the court, wrote that the First Amendment protects “even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate.”
Margie Phelps, who argued the case at the Supreme Court, said Sunday that Westboro would continue challenging such laws, “and once we get a favorable ruling we’ll challenge more.”