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Church’s right to protest funerals upheld

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Posted: Thursday, March 3, 2011 12:00 pm

By Colleen Flaherty

Killeen Daily Herald

Representatives of local veterans' groups had mixed reactions to Wednesday's Supreme Court ruling upholding a fundamentalist Kansas church's right to protest at military funerals.

Officially, the Patriot Guard Riders' deputy state captain, Mary "Marebear" Gregory, said the Riders had no comment on the court's decision in favor of Topeka's Westboro Baptist Church.

Church members, who protest nationwide at funerals for fallen service members, often hold signs featuring gay slurs and other vulgar and inflammatory language and images. They contend that God is punishing the U.S. military for the country's acceptance of homosexuality.

Personally, Gregory said she was disappointed, "(but) that's their First Amendment right."

Wednesday's ruling pertained to a lawsuit filed by Maryland resident Albert Snyder, following a 2006 Westboro protest at his son's funeral. Members also posted on their website a defamatory poem about his son, Lance Cpl. Matthew A. Snyder, a Marine who was killed in action in Iraq in 2006.

After several conflicting rulings in lower courts, the case reached the Supreme Court last year. The court ruled 8-1 Wednesday that Westboro members' words and actions were protected under the First Amendment. Justice Samuel Alito dissented.

The Patriot Guard Riders were formed in 2005 in response to escalating funeral protests by the Westboro members. Their mission is to "honor the fallen and protect the families," Gregory said.

When asked to attend the funeral of veterans and those soldiers killed in action, Guard riders escort the procession, revving their engines to drown out protesters when necessary.

The Central Texas Patriot Guard Riders are among the most active in the nation. About 700 are registered here of about 700,000 nationwide, Gregory said.

Local riders have encountered small groups of Westboro members at least four times since 2005, said former deputy state captain Steve Cole, of Killeen, including in the parking lot of the McDonald's restaurant on Fort Hood Street in 2008.

Gregory also attended the protest, she said. Ironically, the Patriot Guard Riders ended up protecting the protesters from angry passers-by and a group of angry Army spouses who initiated a counter-protest.

Cole retired from the Army as a staff sergeant in 2003.

Ask him what he thinks, he said, and he's glad the Supreme Court upheld the rights that he spent his career defending. But don't ask him how he feels, he said.

Going forward, he said, the ruling won't affect the way the Patriot Guard Riders operate. Although local riders attend several funerals each week, most are those of older veterans. Westboro members have in the past targeted the funerals of those killed in action.

Such funerals attract the kind of attention they want, Cole said.

"All they're doing is trying to get people in the media to give them a voice," he said. "When people in the media cover their protests, their signs get on the front page of the newspapers."

A Fort Hood official said he had no official comment on the ruling Wednesday.

Following the ruling, Westboro member and lead counsel Margie J. Phelps, daughter of Pastor Fred Phelps, told reporters that the church vowed to "quadruple" in number its future protests.

Killeen American Legion commander Robert Brown said he was disappointed in the court.

Verbal assaults on those who protect life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness can no longer be considered free speech, he said. "They have the right to their message, but just because you have the right to the message, you don't have the right to assault the veteran's family.

"Shame on the Supreme Court," he said. "And you can quote me on that."

Contact Colleen Flaherty at colleenf@kdhnews.com or (254) 501-7559. Follow her on Twitter at KDHfeatures.

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