Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Send in the Clowns

The Senate Courts of Justice Committee in the Virginia General Assembly voted on Monday, 15 to 0, to approve a bill, HB 372,that would "[punish] the disruption of a funeral or memorial service as disorderly conduct, a Class 1 misdemeanor." Patroned by Delegate Charles W. Carrico of Independence, the bill earlier passed the House on a unanimous 100-0 vote, so passage in the full Senate looks assured.

The legislation is aimed at stifling the latest practice of the Reverend Fred Phelps, pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, in which he and his flock protest the funerals of U.S. soldiers, sailors, and airmen who have been killed in the service of their country. He asserts that the deaths of these brave men and women is appropriate payback for a country that tolerates homosexuality.

Lately I have heard Phelps mentioned on conservative radio talk shows. Libertarian Neal Boortz calls Phelps a "cretin" on his show on Monday and on WMAL-AM in Washington on Sunday, Chris Plante (a former CNN Pentagon correspondent) suggested that Phelps should be shot.

A group of motorcycle-riding veterans has been following Phelps around and revving up their Harleys to drown out the Phelps clan's chanting -- an interesting variation on the "angel wings" tactic employed by friends of young Matthew Shepard at his funeral in 1998, and memorably recreated in "The Laramie Project" on stage and TV. According to a CNSNews (formerly the "Conservative News Service," now "Cybercast News") story published today:

A group of motorcycle riders who attend U.S. soldiers' funerals to protect them from anti-homosexual protestors on Saturday surpassed the 10,000-member mark.

The Patriot Guard Riders (PGR) escort families of fallen soldiers to funeral services and stand between the funeral proceedings and protestors from the Westboro Baptist Church, who picket the ceremonies with anti-American and anti-homosexuality slogans.

The Westboro Baptist Church, according to its website godhatesfags.com, believes that God uses improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Iraq to avenge the August 1995 bombing of the church headquarters in Topeka, Kan. Church founder Fred Phelps Sr. believes the 1995 bomb was a government attempt to silence his group. Topeka police ruled it a random attack that was part of a string of bombings in the area.

Members of Phelps' church stand outside funeral services holding signs that say, "God Hates Fags," and "God Hates the USA." They also sing songs with anti-homosexual messages. Patriot Group Riders stand between church members and funerals, usually using American flags to obstruct the protestors' view.

The "rides," as PGR members call their events, began in August 2005 when members of the American Legion rode motorcycles to funerals as a response to Westboro's protests. PGR spokesman Kurt Mayer said the group has seen "an explosion of growth" since it went nationwide in November and opened chapters in all 50 states and Puerto Rico.
The Washington Post reported in January that "at least five Midwestern states are considering legislation to ban protests at funerals in response to demonstrations by the Rev. Fred Phelps and members of his Topeka, Kan.-based Westboro Baptist Church, who have been protesting at funerals of Iraq war casualties because they say the deaths are God's punishment for U.S. tolerance toward gays." That number rose quickly: Besides Virginia, 13 other states have considered anti-Phelps legislation, and the Wisconsin legislature has passed a law, which was signed by Governor Jim Doyle, who said:
“I think that it is absolutely shameful that anyone would intentionally disgrace the funeral services of one of these fallen heroes. It’s unfortunate that a bill like this one is even necessary.”

“[W]e all understand that as Americans, people have the right to demonstrate their opinions, however abhorrent those opinions may be to us. I think we also all believe Wisconsin families deserve the right to have a quiet, respectful place to grieve the loss of a loved one.”
Three Wisconsin legislators voted against the law. One of them, Democrat Pedro Colón of Milwaukee, told the Badger Herald, a student newspaper at the University of Wisconsin-Madison:
“[The law] opens our right to self-expression for caveats. I think the more … exceptions you make to the First Amendment, the more you restrict that to the point that you don’t have a First Amendment any more.”
It seems to me that these proposed rules fit under traditional time, place, and manner restrictions, so they are not a particularly egregious infringement of the First Amendment. (Reasonable people might disagree.) Even reprehensible speech deserves protection, but it doesn't need to be enabled.

Boortz, reading from a Leonard Pitts column, suggested that Phelps himself is gay and acting out his own self-loathing. Here's what Pitts wrote in his column in the Houston Chronicle on Monday:
Allow me to share with you an epiphany. I think Fred Phelps is gay.

Not that I'd have any way to know for sure, and not that there's anything wrong with that. But it seems obvious to me that Freddie has spent a little time up on Brokeback Mountain, if you catch my drift. I'm thinking he's secretly into show tunes, interior decorating and man-sized love.

Granted, that's not the first thing that comes to mind when you talk about the Fredster, who is defined by an apparently pathological hatred of all things homosexual. Perhaps you remember how his followers desecrated the funeral of Matthew Shepard, the gay college student who was beaten and left to die on a prairie fence in Wyoming eight years ago. They showed up at the funeral bearing signs that said, "God Hates Fags."

Now Phelps has updated his act. His "thinking," if you want to use that word, is that the casualties of the Iraq war are divine retribution for this country's tolerance of homosexuality. So, he says, thank God for the IEDs, improvised explosive devices, that have sent so many American soldiers home in dead and broken pieces.
Wait, wait -- there's more:
And for goodness' sake, how many times have we seen homosexuality condemned by those who turned out to be closeted themselves? There was Pat Robertson biographer-turned-gay-activist Mel White; Spokane Mayor James West, who spent his days opposing gay rights and his nights in gay chat rooms; and Gary Cooper and Michael Bussee, who founded a group that purported to cure people of homosexuality but gave it up when they fell in love with each other.

Consider all that, and then consider the sick ferocity of Phelps' attack:

God hates "fags."

Gays are vomit-eating dogs.

Gays are "worthy of death."

Can you say "self-hatred," boys and girls? Come on, isn't it obvious? The poor fellow is gayer than a Bette Midler AIDS benefit. In San Francisco.

He needs not our condemnation but our understanding. Maybe someday he'll find the strength to stop living this lie. He might just go on to be the greatest gay-rights activist this country has ever known. Maybe then, in the arms of the right man, he'll stop hurting.

Kind of chokes me up to think about it.
Even if Fred Phelps is not a deeply-closeted, self-loathing homosexual, he has another secret that many people would like suppressed: He has been a Democratic party activist and financial supporter of former Vice President Al Gore. According to a news release from the Log Cabin Republicans dated October 25, 2000:
Reports linking Vice President Al Gore with notorious anti-gay activist Fred Phelps, Jr., and the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas were confirmed with the release of photographs showing Gore at a fundraiser at the home of Fred Phelps, Jr., who told the Conservative News Service on October 16 that he served as a Gore delegate on the floor of the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta in 1988.

Gore, who was quoted by the Nashville Tennessean in 1984 saying homosexuality is not "an acceptable alternative that society should affirm" and said in his 1984 U.S. Senate race that he would not accept money from gay rights organizations and that he opposed a "gay bill of rights," reportedly sought the support of the Phelps family in his 1988 presidential campaign, and invited the Phelps' to the Clinton-Gore inaugurations of January 1993 and January 1997....

Fred Phelps, Jr. also ran for Governor of Kansas in the Democratic primary in 1990, winning over 11,000 votes and placing third.
The web site of the Washington state Log Cabin Republicans has reproduced the photos of Al Gore and Fred Phelps here and here.

Phelps has been doing his street theatre routine for a long time. I remember seeing his group outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1996, carrying signs with stick-figures engaged in rather angular sodomy. As mentioned earlier, Phelps made his reputation protesting the emotional funeral of murder victim Matthew Shepard in 1998, an event that gained worldwide media coverage. But he had been demonstrating outside funerals of gay people for years. According to Bill Berkowitz of WorkingforChange.com:
The Topeka, Kansas, Baptist preacher proudly boasts he and his family have picketed 20,000 gay-friendly places and events including universities, city halls, state capitals, arts performances and small businesses. Phelps and supporters (who mostly consist of his children and grandchildren) thrust themselves into the national spotlight several years back by picketing the funeral of President Clinton's mother, and the funeral of Randy Shilts, the San Francisco-based gay journalist and author of several books including "And the Band Played On."
Psychopath that he is, Phelps is probably grateful for all the attention he's getting in recent days. Being attacked on the floor of any legislature, state or national, is in many ways a mark of honor. He may be disappointed, however, if sending this message of opprobrium discourages others from emulating Phelps' methods and point of view.

Isn't it queer, though, how conservatives didn't have any objections to Phelps when he just protested outside the funerals of gay (and gay-friendly) people? Now that he's taking his message to the funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq, they're all shocked and disgusted. I have to wonder where the shock and disgust were when Phelps' targets were "only" gay men and lesbians.

Isn't it rich?


Lucy Jones said...

Can the families or police not stop the protests by reporting disorderly conduct or something?

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