Defending the Right to Hate (Part 2)

By: Greg C. Reeson

Several months ago I wrote a column in which I defended the right of Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church to stage protests at the funeral sites of soldiers killed in the Global War on Terror. Despite many legal efforts to restrict these demonstrations, Phelps and his flock continue to rally at the graves of our war dead. And now the tiny Kansas church is getting help from the ACLU.

Phelps and his flock first gained national notoriety when they began showing up at military funerals waving signs that read “God Hates Fags” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.” The basic sermon goes something like this: because America tolerates homosexuality, God is offended and is killing off the young men and women of our military as punishment for our sins.

Phelps preaches a radical, fire-and-brimstone message that twists scripture to suit his agenda. He viciously attacks the families of fallen soldiers and desecrates their memories when they are most vulnerable. And he makes no apologies for what he is doing.

In response to overwhelming public discontent over Phelps’ tactics, 29 states and the U.S. Congress passed laws designed to prevent people like Phelps from disrupting military funerals. This past Memorial Day, President Bush signed into law the Respect for America’s Fallen Heroes Act, prohibiting demonstrations within a certain distance of national cemeteries.

Private groups like the Patriot Guard Riders stage their own counter-protests to provide a buffer between Phelps and the soldiers’ families. These groups generally keep their demonstrations low-key and just try to shield the grieving loved ones from the hate-filled rhetoric of the Westboro Baptist Church. The Patriot Guard has received overwhelming support and its 50,000-plus members travel the country to match Phelps protest for protest.

As I argued back in June, though, Phelps and other protestors are guaranteed the right to stage their rallies by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble….”

This is an emotional issue that equally inflames the passions of those disgusted by Phelps and those who recognize that, passion aside, laws limiting the rights of free speech and assembly must be challenged as unconstitutional. The American Civil Liberties Union has now entered the fight and is helping Phelps challenge some of the state laws. It is likely this battle will eventually make its way to the United States Supreme Court.

When all is said and done, there is a strong possibility that the laws enacted by the states and Congress in response to the Westboro Baptist Church will be thrown out as violations of the Constitution’s Bill of Rights. If the laws are examined on the basis of the U.S. Constitution, and not on the basis of what justices believe to be right or wrong, then Phelps and his congregation will emerge victorious.

If it is the will of the people that certain types of speech be limited under specific circumstances, then a change to the Constitution is the appropriate course of action. While laws targeted at actions that most people find offensive seem like the sensible thing to do, such statutes violate the basic principles upon which this country was founded. Congress should draft a Constitutional amendment that the people of the various states can then accept or reject. Simply bypassing the Constitution as it is currently written is not an option.

As I said in my previous column on this subject, I find the actions of Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church to be morally bankrupt, uncharacteristic of the Christian faith I was raised in, and in just plain bad taste.

But none of this changes the fact that protests at the funerals of our fallen heroes are based on sound legal principles supported by the First Amendment to the Constitution. Phelps’ followers have the same rights to free speech and assembly at military funerals as the Patriot Guard Riders. And it is these rights that the men and women at the center of the controversy, our fallen heroes, died to protect.

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