Thursday, July 16, 2009
“Tipping the scales of justice - even a little bit - is wrong,” says American Legion National Commander David K. Rehbein. The leader of the nation’s largest veterans service organization was reacting to recent legal actions on behalf of the Westboro Baptist Church. Fred Phelps, the Kansas-based church’s founder, and his followers proclaim that the United States is being punished for its lax attitude toward homosexuality with the deaths of American soldiers. The belief has led the church group to protest at funerals and memorial services for slain warriors. They carry such placards as, “Thank God For Dead Soldiers.”
“It is clearly their constitutional right to challenge any law that infringes on First Amendment rights,” Rehbein said. "But what about the First Amendment rights of our fallen heroes, their families and friends? I want everyone to know that The American Legion will continue to fight for the rights of those who made the ultimate sacrifice, as well as their survivors and friends as they pay their final respects."
It is now being reported that the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is challenging a Maplewood, Mo., statute restricting demonstrations like the ones staged by Phelps and his followers. The ACLU argues the restriction is too broad and violates the First Amendment.
Christina Wells, Enoch H. Crowder Professor of Law at the University of Missouri School of Law, says recent legislation enacted in response to funeral protests conducted by Westboro Baptist Church members may restrict a broad range of expressive activities, including peaceful protests.
“The instinct to regulate or punish is powerful and understandable,” Wells said. "Such regulation, however, poses significant issues for freedom of speech. Our outrage shouldn’t overshadow reasoned legal response."
Rehbein hopes that once the ACLU stops defending Phelps it will “join with The American Legion - and the vast majority of Americans - who believe the privacy rights of fallen heroes, their families and friends should be protected and preserved as they are allowed to mourn and grieve without wanton harassment.”