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Tourists walk past protesters from the Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church during a demonstration outside the U.S. Capitol on Thursday. Church members, who have been picketing military funerals across the country, were in Washington to protest a new federal law which would limit those types of demonstrations.
Tourists walk past protesters from the Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church during a demonstration outside the U.S. Capitol on Thursday. Church members, who have been picketing military funerals across the country, were in Washington to protest a new federal law which would limit those types of demonstrations. (Leo Shane III / S&S)

WASHINGTON — Lawmakers supporting a bill to limit protests at some veterans cemeteries said Thursday they’ll speed up the legislative process in hopes of getting the measure signed into law by Memorial Day.

Bill sponsor Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., said the proposal has been met with wide support among his colleagues in the House and Senate, which makes the prospect of fast tracking the proposal more likely.

The bill, prompted by a series of protests at military funerals by members of the Westboro Baptist Church, would prohibit demonstrations an hour before or after a funeral at any national cemetery, and force picket lines to stay at least 500 feet from the grieving family. Violators could face up to one year in jail and a $100,000 fine for each offense.

“If you want to circle the cemetery an hour before a funeral and spew your hate and discontent, you can still do that,” he said. “But this will protect the families.”

Members of the Kansas-based church attended a hearing on the bill but did not offer any testimony or advice to the committee. The group, which insists that troops are being killed to punish the United States for embracing a pro-homosexual agenda, have picketed dozens of military funerals.

Shirley Phelps-Roper, daughter of the Westboro group’s founder Fred Phelps, led a protest outside the U.S. Capitol during the hearing and another a few hours later outside Walter Reed Army Medical Center. The group showed off its newest sign — “Thank god for maimed soldiers” — and other posters.

“They ought to pass a law abolishing hell, because that would be more helpful than this law,” she said. “We’re going to keep telling them the truth.”

House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Steve Buyer, R-Ind., said one member of his committee has expressed concerns about the bill’s implications on freedom of speech issues, but he does not expect that to pose a major challenge to passing the bill quickly.

He said he has already had preliminary discussion with House leaders on sending the bill directly to the full chamber for a vote, potentially trimming months off the normal legislative process.

“We’ve already received support from the [Democrats] as well, so I’d expect this to work,” he said.

Five states — South Dakota, Kansas, Oklahoma, Indiana and Kentucky — have passed funeral protest laws, and several others are considering similar proposals. Rogers said he hopes the federal bill can serve as a template for future state laws.

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