I believe that the men and women in uniform fighting for us in Iraq are honorable and are serving a cause that they believe is in the best interest of our country. And though many may disagree with the way in which the war was initiated and is being administered, most agree that those who are serving are worthy of respect.

Fred Phelps of “God Hates Fags” fame and his family/church have now taken to picketing military funerals. His distorted logic is that because the country “tolerates” homosexuality, that God now hates America and that every military death is an example of God’s gleeful punishment.

Phelps’ pickets are illogical, tasteless, and cruel to grieving families. But the US House of Representatives has responded in a manner that gives me concern. By a vote of 408 to 3 the House passed House Resolution 5037:

“The Respect for America’s Fallen Heroes Act would prohibit demonstrations within 500 feet of a national cemetery and Arlington National Cemetery — 60 minutes before and after a funeral”

While I can sympathize with those going through a traumatic and difficult time and despise the hateful antics of Phelps’ harassment squad, there are still three problems I find with this approach.

First, I don’t believe that all decisions made by a government, especially those decisions around war and military action, should be protected from scrutiny and criticism. While a funeral may hardly seem the appropriate time and place for criticism of governmental policy, I am generally bothered when the government begins to make exceptions to free speech that are designed to limit those who disagree with them.

Second, when these protests began they were not targeted at military funerals but instead at funerals of gay people. And there was no effort made on the part of these legislators to protect the loved ones of gay people. In fact, this bill still will not protect gay funerals from Fred Phelps and his merry band of fag haters.

The message is clear. If you enlist knowing that you may be killed in action, your family should be protected from protest. But if you are a gay young man beaten to a blood pulp and left to die tied to a fence in the snow, “burn in hell” signs at your funeral are just fine.

It may be that gay funerals may benefit from this bill and similar state bills. Yet it remains an sad fact that our elected officials considered anti-gay speech at funerals to be legitimate protest and anti-military speech to require action.

Finally, the motivation for this legislation appears to be at least partly out of embarrassment over association with Phelps’ hate band. While he was protesting gays, he didn’t get much attention. When he protested soldiers, people noticed.

Often reaction included indignant comments like “this is a military funeral and has nothing to do with homosexuality. This soldier wasn’t gay!!” The anger was intensified that someone might think that their loved one was gay or that they supported gay rights. Anti-gay people were put into the awkward position of being protested for views which they shared with the protestors.

Prior to military pickets, efforts to disassociate religion from the Phelps Family were diverse and at time comical. Some churches counter protested with messages of love and acceptance. Some proclaimed that while they disagreed theologically with homosexual behavior, that hatred was far worse. Often in small towns the mainline churchfolk would counter-protest when the Phelps clan came to town.

More conservative churches ignored them and while disagreeing with their methods, did not disagree with their message. While they may have preferred “militant homosexual activist hate Christ” to “God hates Fags”, they did not feel much need to quibble over Phelps’ wording. But now that military funerals are the target, they can no longer look away and pretend to be unaware of Fred and family.

Their reaction has been odd. It has mostly been “We are not like that. We love the sinner, hate the sin. God doesn’t hate fags, he just hates everything about them and wants us to make their lives as miserable as we possibly can”. (my phrasing, not theirs)

Perhaps the most bizarrely contrived notion comes from American Family Association, a rabid anti-gay activist group, who claims that because Phelps does not believe in redemption for gay people and because the AFA supports reorientation then therefore Phelps is just exactly like “homosexual activists” and they condemn both together. That’s the first time I’ve heard of the doctrine of predestination being contrasted to reorientation and the effect is amusing.

No doubt many who voted for this bill did so because it seemed to be the proper and caring thing to do. However, it seems to me that this silencing of Fred Phelps has more to do with halting the obvious comparison of his message to those who hold themselves out to be moral, than it does with compassion for the grieving.

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