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States try to block protests at troops' rites

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- States are rushing to limit when and where people may protest at funerals -- because of a fundamentalist Kansas church whose members picket soldiers' burials, arguing that Americans are dying for a country that harbors homosexuals.

In the 1990s, the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., picketed the funerals of AIDS victims with signs that denounced homosexuality.

But politicians began paying more attention recently when church members started showing up at the burials of soldiers and Marines who were killed in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Legislation is being considered in at least 14 states, and several of the bills are moving quickly, with backing from legislative leaders and governors.

If they pass, the bills might set up a clash between privacy and free-speech rights, and court challenges are almost certain.

''We're not proposing to silence the speech of the Westboro Baptist Church, as offensive as most of us find that," said the Kansas Senate majority leader, Derek Schmidt, a Republican. Instead, he said, he is trying to achieve a balance that respects ''the rights of families to bury their dead in peace."

The church has about 75 members, most of them belonging to the extended family of the Westboro Baptist pastor, the Rev. Fred Phelps. The church preaches a literal reading of the Bible.

Shirley Phelps-Roper, Phelps's daughter and a lawyer for the church, said states cannot interfere with their message that the soldiers had been struck down by God because they were fighting for a country that harbors homosexuals and adulterers.

Lawmakers are ''trying to introduce something that will make them feel better about the holes we're punching in the facade they live under," Phelps-Roper said. ''If they pass a law that gets in our way, they will be violating the Constitution, and we will sue them."

Among the states considering such measures: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.

Some of the bills specify noisy, disruptive behavior, or signs with ''fighting words," as in Wisconsin. Some bar protests within one or two hours before or after a funeral starts; others specify distances ranging from 10 car lengths to five blocks away; some include both.

Violations can bring fines of a few hundred dollars, as many as 30 days in jail, or more. Wisconsin is calling for fines of up to $10,000; one bill in Oklahoma would set a one-year jail sentence.

Missouri's bill was named for Army Specialist Edward Lee Myers, 21, whose wife went to his funeral early to avoid protesters.

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