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WESTBORO COMES TO ST CHARLES
by Nathaniel R. Helms | January 18, 2011 | Next story: ACLU to Westboro's Aid
Defend Our Marines fills a tiny niche in a big news world. Our customary role is writing about a small group of Marines once accused of heinous crimes in Iraq. Thankfully the list of maligned Devil Dogs is down to one. Although doing it has coincidentally brought other situations momentarily onto our radar screen, publisher David Allender wisely steers a course that never deviates too far from what we know best. The following story is different. As far as this reporter can tell there is no plausible explanation for it.
This narrative begins with a 5:00 am television newscast here in St. Charles, Missouri on Tuesday morning that led with a story about a group of religious protestors. The news account showed them holding signs covered with inflammatory slogans during a recent protest in our bedroom suburb of St. Louis. The report said the American Civil Liberties Union is coming to obscure St. Charles to contest a new county law prohibiting hecklers from interfering with funerals. My wife observed it is a sad state of affairs indeed when laws are needed to prevent protestors from heckling mourners in cemeteries.
The ACLU is challenging St. Charles County's new funeral picketing ordinance in federal court on behalf of the congregation of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas. Folks around here were simply tired of their presence and acted accordingly, a county official explained. Meanwhile the St. Charles City Council is considering adopting similar legislation, the story said.
Both new laws are aimed at members of the extremist church who like to come around here for some bizarre reason to interfere with the funerals of our service members killed in Afghanistan and Iraq. They have been visiting for awhile now. The video showed reported members of the Westboro congregation heckling participants at a recent funeral for a local Marine killed in Afghanistan. He was just out of high school.
One sign the religious zealots were waving showed an image of a prosthesis and a slogan declaring the Almighty was somehow behind our service members losing their limbs in combat. Another said “God hates the Fag Corps,” no doubt a reference to the recent abolishment of the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Others were equally provocative.
The church’s website is called GodHatesFags – seriously – nobody could make that up. The Pastor Fred Phelps claims to have direct knowledge of all the things God hates. On the left side of the home page is a list of active links that will take you to them. According to the 82-year old pastor, American service members top the list because they defend all the things God hates.
What makes these observations notable is my ringside seat to the bizarre situation. Such views are rarely offered to ordinary people going about their lives pretty much as they always do. Backwater St. Charles is suddenly at the center of an argument over the meaning of the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States – freedom of speech. The ACLU spokesman says local government officials have no right to interfere with the voice of the protestors. The new county law says they have to stay 300 feet away from the bereaved during funeral services.
My only distinction in all this is I am a veteran, a condition that makes me acutely sensitive to combat deaths among the young people from my community. My perspective on many things was shaped by my experiences in war. The most profound is the death of a service member in the cruel crucible of combat. It is a horrible thing.
Without reservation I believe that anyone who makes the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of their country deserves the respect of those who live protected lives within it. Conversely military members swear a sacred oath to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. There is no wiggle room there. It applies to everybody. The hecklers remind me of flag burners. As much as I detest their behavior I respect their right to do it. My Dad taught me that is what free means. He spent his entire life in the Army and knew something about such things.
Behind the hecklers in the video is a long line of old vets who ride motorcycles to put themselves between the hecklers and the bereaved. They call themselves “Freedom Riders.” They represent pride and hope to many people around here. Behind them an honor guard of Marines was laying their comrade to rest.
I momentarily hoped the leathered-up grey beards would lose their tempers and shove some of those signs into places where the sun doesn’t shine. Then I remembered the little girl who was recently murdered at the political rally in Arizona and felt ashamed of myself. All she wanted was to see democracy in action. It is the same paradox the courts must now face. A least for awhile old, boring St. Charles should get pretty interesting.
Nathaniel R. Helms
Note: Nat Helms is a Contributing Editor to Defend Our Marines. He is a Vietnam veteran, former police officer, war correspondent, and, most recently, author of My Men Are My Heroes: The Brad Kasal Story (Meredith Books, 2007).