Rebecca O’Halloran / State Journal-Register – 2006-02-08 23:41:22
Committee OKs Curbs on Protests at Funerals.
Families of Service Members Killed in Iraq Testify on Bill
Rebecca O’Halloran / State Capitol Bureau
SPRINGFIELD, IL (January 27, 2006) — When Linda Morrison of Virden heard that protesters from Kansas were going to picket at her son’s memorial service, she considered canceling it.
Her son, Army Staff Sgt. Gary Harper Jr., 29, was killed in Iraq, and instead of canceling, her son’s wife and children decided not to attend the ceremony on Dec. 10. Harper’s brother and his family also decided to stay home.
Holding up signs that read, “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” the protesters, who have picketed services across the country, shouted hateful comments about Harper, saying he had died in shame rather than honor because the country tolerates homosexuality, Harper’s family said.
“Let’s face it, he died to give them the right to do this, but they shouldn’t be allowed to come in and come to our private personal ceremony and interfere with that,” said Christi Hamm, Harper’s sister.
Harper’s mother testified at an Illinois House committee hearing Thursday in support of legislation that would make it illegal for protesters to demonstrate within 200 feet of a funeral service for 30 minutes before, during and 30 minutes after the ceremony.
The committee passed House Bill 4532, and it is now up for debate in the House.
Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn also testified in support of the “Let Them Rest in Peace Act.”
“Essentially what this (legislation) is, is a way to balance the religious and speech and assembly rights of those who are gathered at the funeral against those outside the funeral who wish to disrupt it,” said Quinn, who has attended more than 100 funerals and memorial services for Illinois soldiers.
He said that the shouts and protests from the Kansas “hate group” are canceling “out the speech rights of citizens who are exercising their First Amendment rights to grieve.”
At the funeral of Sgt. 1st Class Kyle Wehrly in Galesburg, students from Knox College assembled a human barrier to block the protesters from bothering the late soldier’s family.
“I believe our Constitution gives parameters in which we live as free people — those parameters must never be destroyed or altered,” said his father, the Rev. Peter Wehrly, while also testifying before the committee. “But, in the same breath, I will say that no one has the right, when living within those perimeters, to interfere with the rights of other citizens.”
Peter Wehrly is pastor of the United Methodist Church’s Northside Ministries in Springfield.
Contacted later by telephone, Shirley Phelps-Roper, an attorney for the protesters, the anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church from Topeka, Kan., said it is the group’s constitutional right to picket.
She said a ceremony such as those that have been picked is not private but is rather a “patriotic pep rally.”
“If you try to stop us with some unlawful and unconstitutional measure, then we’ll sue you,” she said.
The group pickets not to protest the war, but to protest the fact that the soldiers fight for a country that tolerates homosexuality.
An attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union testified against the bill in its current form but said she would be willing to work with sponsors on the language.
HB4532 has no exceptions, which means that the more than 2,000 unionized cemetery workers would not be allowed to picket under its guidelines.
The bill still has to pass the full House and Senate and be signed by the governor before it becomes law.
Rebecca O’Halloran can be reached at 544-2819 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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