Bill that restricts protests at military funerals awaits Obama's signature

Story highlights

  • Congress has passed measure as part of comprehensive bill on veterans affairs
  • It bans protests two hours before and after military funerals
  • A Kansas church has held hundreds of anti-gay protests at military funerals
  • The Westboro Baptist Church won a Supreme Court ruling for its right to protest

A comprehensive bill on veterans affairs awaiting President Barack Obama's signature includes provisions that would expand restrictions on protests at military funerals such as those carried out by Westboro Baptist Church of Kansas.

Under the "Honoring America's Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act of 2012," which won final congressional approval Tuesday, protesters must be at least 300 feet from military funerals from two hours before they start until two hours after they end.

Violators could face unspecified fines and up to two years in prison.

The Kansas church has attracted nationwide attention for its angry, anti-gay protests at the funerals of U.S. military members.

2011: Counter-protesters confront Westboro Baptist Church at Arlington

Foo Fighters vs. Westboro Baptist Church
Foo Fighters vs. Westboro Baptist Church

    JUST WATCHED

    Foo Fighters vs. Westboro Baptist Church

MUST WATCH

Foo Fighters vs. Westboro Baptist Church 01:20

It won an appeal at the U.S. Supreme Court last year in a case that tested the competing constitutional rights of free speech and privacy.

There was no immediate response Thursday to a CNN e-mail to the Westboro Baptist Church seeking comment.

Led by pastor Fred Phelps, the church believes God is punishing the United States for "the sin of homosexuality" through events including soldiers' deaths.

Members have traveled the country shouting at grieving families at funerals and displaying such signs as "Thank God for dead soldiers," "God blew up the troops" and "AIDS cures fags."

According to the church website, they will continue protesting at military funerals. It was unclear whether enactment of the new law would change the church's plans or whether the church would mount a legal challenge against it.

The new restrictions expand on provisions in a federal law passed in 2006 that banned protests within 300 feet of national cemeteries from an hour before a funeral to an hour after it, with violators facing fines and up to a year in prison.

The Supreme Court case involved a protest by Westboro members outside the 2006 funeral for Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder in Westminster, Maryland, near Baltimore.

Snyder's family sued the church in 2007, alleging invasion of privacy, intentional infliction of emotional distress and civil conspiracy. A jury awarded the family $2.9 million in compensatory damages plus $8 million in punitive damages, which were later reduced to $5 million.

The church appealed the case in 2008 to a federal appeals court, which reversed the judgments a year later, siding with the church's allegations that its First Amendment rights were violated. The case then went to the Supreme Court, which issued a narrow ruling based on the facts of the specific appeal.

By an 8-1 vote, the high court said members of Westboro Baptist Church had a right to promote what they call a broad-based message on public matters such as wars.

A majority of states across the nation have responded to the protests with varying levels of control over the Westboro church protesters.

2011: Army veteran pleads to misdemeanors in Westboro stalking case

Church members say their broader message is aimed at the unspecified actions of the military and those who serve in it. They believe U.S. soldiers deserve to die because they fight for a country that tolerates homosexuality.

The congregation is made up mostly of Fred Phelps and his family. The pastor has 13 children, and at least 54 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

He described himself as an "old-time" gospel preacher in a CNN interview in 2006, saying, "You can't preach the Bible without preaching the hatred of God."

2011: Foo Fighters protest Westboro Baptist Church

      CNN recommends

    • pkg clancy north korea nuclear dreams_00002004.jpg

      North Korea nuclear dream video

      As "We are the World" plays, a video shows what looks like a nuclear attack on the U.S. Jim Clancy reports on a bizarre video from North Korea.
    • Photos: Faces of the world

      Photojournalist Alison Wright travelled the world to capture its many faces in her latest book, "Face to Face: Portraits of the Human Spirit."
    • pkg rivers uk football match fixing_00005026.jpg

      How to fix a soccer match

      Europol claims 380 soccer matches, including top level ones, were fixed - as the scandal widens, CNN's Dan Rivers looks at how it's done.
    • No Eiffel Towers, Statues of Liberties, Mt. Rushmores, Taj Mahals, Aussie koalas or Chairman Maos.

      15 biggest souvenir-buying no-no's

      It's an essential part of any trip, an activity we all take part in. Yet almost none of us are any good at it. Souvenir buying is too often an obligatory slog.