A family member’s death is one of the most emotionally upsetting times in any person’s life. Unfortunately, there are groups like the Westboro Baptist Church that exploit such somber occasions to push hateful agendas. Led by Fred Phelps, the Topeka, Kansas-based “ministry” travels around America protesting soldiers’ funerals because its members believe American soldiers deserve to die defending a country that tolerates homosexuality.
In response, state legislatures around the country are seeking to ban such protests at military funerals. After the Westboro Baptist Church protested Army Sgt.. Joshua Youmans’ funeral in Flushing, Mich. by holding up signs that read “God Hates Fags” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” Michigan lawmakers are vying to introduce a similar ban in Michigan. State Rep. Judy Emmons (R-Sheridan) introduced a bill earlier this month that would criminalize intentional disruptions, loud noises or threatening gestures within 500 feet of any military funeral. Violators could face up to two years in prison and $5,000 in fines.
Though the ban would ease the emotional rollercoaster that military families may have to endure, the bill’s constitutionality must be questioned. The Legislature cannot simply overlook Westboro Baptist Church’s First Amendment right to peacefully assemble, no matter how painfully ignorant and hateful their so-called “message” may be.
Silencing the anti-gay group may spare some families from offense, but will do nothing to counter its malignant ideas. The best way for society to defeat the so-called church’s senseless agenda is to allow its members to speak their minds – and be exposed as the bigoted extremists they are. By providing an example of the irrational conclusions sheer hatred can lead to, the Westboro Baptist Church discredits the cause its believers seek to advocate.
Most disturbing about the bill is that it has gained the support of the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan. ACLU of Michigan Executive Director Kary Moss supports the bill so long as it does not target certain groups or types of speech – a strange stance given the ACLU’s past record of overwhelming opposition to any restrictions on free speech.
Those upset with the ministry’s hateful message can follow the example of the Patriot Guard Riders. Soldiers’ families can invite the 5,000-member motorcycle club to funerals in order to counter the Westboro Baptist Church’s protests. They wave American flags while revving their engines, spewing exhaust smoke toward the protestors.
But if Emmons’s bill becomes law, the Patriot Guard Riders could also be silenced. Taking away the rights of the Westboro Baptist Church to peacefully assemble also infringes on the rights of protesters to counter it and could threaten the rights of other groups to freely assemble in the future.
The Westboro Baptist Church’s hateful message may be unnerving for fallen soldiers’ families. But if the rights of the Ku Klux Klan to hold racist rallies and the American Nazi Society to spout anti-Semetic hate speech are protected, so too must be the rights of the Westboro Baptist Church. No matter how despicable the ministry’s protests may be, driving their hate-filled message underground can only cause more harm than good.