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Governor backs limits on funeral protests

Fallout continues after picketing at funeral

By Patrick Condon

Associated Press

ST. PAUL -- Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who said he was "disgusted" by confrontational anti-gay picketers at a soldier's funeral in Anoka, on Friday said he'd support a bill to limit protests at such events.

"I was appalled by the behavior and message and insensitivity of the protesters," Pawlenty said at a news conference. He also expressed his anger during his weekly Friday morning radio show.

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The Republican governor had attended the funeral a day before for Cpl. Andrew Kemple, killed Feb. 12 in Iraq. It was picketed by a small group from Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., which has demonstrated at soldier funerals around the country, making the claim that God is killing U.S. soldiers who fight for a country that tolerates homosexuality.

The six-person group picketed near the door of Zion Lutheran Church, and at one point had a direct confrontation with Kemple's mother, who told them they were hateful. Pawlenty repeatedly praised Deirdre Ostlund for her composure and grace, especially for commenting during the funeral that her son died to protect the free speech rights being exercised by the protesters.

The group was led by Shirley Phelps-Roper, the daughter of Fred Phelps, founder of the nondenominational church. It gained infamy in the 1990s for, among other things, picketing at the funerals of AIDS victims and of Matthew Shepard, the Wyoming college student killed in 1998 by two men he met at a bar.

The more recent demonstrations at soldier funerals have drawn the ire of politicians, and bills to limit such protests are being considered or have passed in more than a dozen states, including Wisconsin, where Gov. Jim Doyle signed such a bill into law this week.

Several Minnesota lawmakers have introduced bills here in advance of the legislative session, which starts Wednesday. One, proposed by Rep. Dan Severson, R-Sauk Rapids, would require that protesters at all funerals be required to stay at least 300 feet away from mourners.

"People have a right to demonstrate, but they don't have a right to infringe on the rights of a family trying to mourn the loss of a loved one," Severson said. "That too is a fundamental right."

Some version of the bill can expect bipartisan support. Rep. Karen Clark, DFL-Minneapolis and the House's only openly gay member, said she'd sign on as a co-sponsor -- despite her own anger toward Severson, chief House sponsor of a constitutional amendment banning marriage or civil unions for gay couples, and Pawlenty, who supports it.

"It doesn't fool me that their own agenda, which has its own little piece of hatred, will not continue," Clark said.

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Pawlenty spokesman Brian McClung said the two issues are completely separate. Pawlenty in previous comments on the gay marriage amendment has stressed the importance of debating the issue with respect for all involved.

Phelps-Roper has said that her group will sue to overturn any state laws limiting their free speech rights. But Chuck Samuelson, executive director of the ACLU of Minnesota, said the bill most likely could be crafted in a way that preserves speech rights while keeping a distance between protesters and funeral-goers.

Whether the state should pursue such a law is another question, Samuelson said.

"This guy, Fred Phelps -- I'm as opposed to his message as I can possibly be," Samuelson said. "But at the end of the day, this kind of attention is just what he craves. It's like red meat to a dog."

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