Skip to main content

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

By the CNN Wire Staff
updated 10:28 PM EDT, Thu August 2, 2012
  • 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

Washington (CNN) -- 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.

Foo Fighters vs. Westboro Baptist Church

2011: Counter-protesters confront Westboro Baptist Church at Arlington

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's Tom Cohen contributed to this report.

Part of complete coverage on
updated 10:26 AM EST, Wed February 6, 2013
Advocates say the exam includes unnecessarily invasive and irrelevant procedures -- like a so-called "two finger" test.
updated 7:09 PM EST, Tue February 5, 2013
Supplies of food, clothing and fuel are running short in Damascus and people are going hungry as the civil war drags on.
updated 1:01 PM EST, Wed February 6, 2013
Supporters of Richard III want a reconstruction of his head to bring a human aspect to a leader portrayed as a murderous villain.
updated 10:48 AM EST, Tue February 5, 2013
Robert Fowler spent 130 days held hostage by the same al Qaeda group that was behind the Algeria massacre. He shares his experience.
updated 12:07 AM EST, Wed February 6, 2013
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.
The relationship is, once again, cold enough to make Obama's much-trumpeted "reset" in Russian-U.S. relations seem thoroughly off the rails.
Ten years on, what do you think the Iraq war has changed in you, and in your country? Send us your thoughts and experiences.
updated 7:15 AM EST, Tue February 5, 2013
Musician Daniela Mercury has sold more than 12 million albums worldwide over a career span of nearly 30 years.
Photojournalist Alison Wright travelled the world to capture its many faces in her latest book, "Face to Face: Portraits of the Human Spirit."
updated 7:06 PM EST, Tue February 5, 2013
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.
updated 7:37 AM EST, Wed February 6, 2013
That galaxy far, far away is apparently bigger than first thought. The "Star Wars" franchise will get two spinoff movies, Disney announced.
updated 7:27 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
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.