Wednesday, June 07, 2006

TOP STORY >> Minister bringing anti-gay protest to burial

Leader staff writer

IN SHORT: Beebe police hope to keep order as a controversial religious group plans to rally near the church where services for soldier will be held today.

Tuesday afternoon, about 24 hours after receiving a fax that the funeral of Army Specialist Bobby West would be picketed by members of Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., who cheer the death of American soldiers, Beebe police said they are ready to protect the protesters and hope area residents ignore them.

Don Inns, a lieutenant with the Beebe Police Depart-ment, said four officers, including one state trooper and a White County sheriff’s deputy, will help guard the picketers, who believe America is cursed because it tolerates homosexuals.

Inns said he would be one of the four guarding the church demonstrators. He explained that most area residents know and like him and he hopes that his presence will have a calming effect.

“Our main concern is that we don’t want the public to incite any violence,” Inns said.

A few of the 10 expected demonstrators will likely be children, he said. But some will be lawyers.

“They know the law that gives them the right to assemble and the right to free speech and they know how to act,” he said. “They aren’t going to break the law.”

“Ignore them,” Inns implores area residents. “They have the right to assemble and they are doing it correctly.”

Inns said Beebe Police had been watching the WBC Website since Friday when a phone call from the FBI alerted them that the West funeral might be a target. On Sunday, a new press release on the site confirmed the FBI’s information.

“WBC to picket funeral of Army Spec. Bobby R. West at 1:15 p.m., Wednesday June 7, at First Baptist Church leper colony, 101 Highway 64 West, Beebe, Ark.,” the Website news release said.

“He was killed by an IED like the one America (university students in Topeka) bombed WBC with in a vain attempt to stop our anti-gay gospel preaching. God almighty killed Army Spec. West. He died in shame, not honor for a fag nation cursed by God.”

The church, established in 1955 and still run by Fred Phelps, believes the deaths of American soldiers fighting the war on terrorism are divine retribution for America’s tolerance of gays.

And the message delivered through its Website and picket line is that the WBC is the last hope of the world.

“Thank God for dead soldiers,” “God hates you,” “Fags doom nations,” “God hates your tears,” say some of the signs church members carry at the funerals of soldiers.

“Thank God for 22 more dead soldiers. We wish it were 22,000” was the headline for press release earlier this year.
The list of dead soldiers was called a “roster of the damned.”

Inns said the church demanded in the fax sent Monday asked for an area to demonstrate in and police protection. No permit is required for the demonstration.

“We’ve got a permit for door-to-door salesmen, but Beebe doesn’t have a permit for picketing that we can find, and we looked,” Inns said.

Arkansas is one of a handful of states that have passed laws limiting picketing at funerals for soldiers. Inns said the police department has asked for clarification of the law from the Arkansas Muni-cipal League, which provides various services to cities including legal advice.

The law requires picketers to stay 150 feet away from mourners and they aren’t allowed to picket 30 minutes before a funeral service is scheduled to begin or 30 minutes after it ends.

Inns said the space that has been selected is 300 yards away from the church at the intersection of Highway 64 and Dugger Road on state right-of-way. To get any closer, picketers would have to be on church property where they could be asked to leave.

No picketing is planned at the cemetery.

Inns said he had taken calls all day from residents wanting to know if they could protest the picketers, including one who wanted to know if throwing water balloons was allowed.

Inns said he hopes those people realize that if they cause trouble, they will be arrested. As distasteful as the WBC’s demonstrations are, they aren’t against the law, he said.

“I need everyone to keep in mind the real purpose of tomorrow,” he said.

“It is a day to pay respect to a soldier from this city. “If you don’t agree with (the picketers), don’t acknowledge them.”