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Patrick torn on military funeral protests

Conflict between grief, free speech

A man waved a US Marine Corps flag in the face of Betty Phelps, daughter-in-law of pastor Fred Phelps. Patrick has made a point of attending funerals for fallen soldiers. A man waved a US Marine Corps flag in the face of Betty Phelps, daughter-in-law of pastor Fred Phelps. Patrick has made a point of attending funerals for fallen soldiers. (Chip Somodevilla/ Getty Images)
By Matt Murphy and Kyle Cheney
State House News Service / October 8, 2010

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Weighing in on the Supreme Court case regarding the rights of the fringe Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas to protest military funerals, Governor Deval Patrick said yesterday that he was torn between respecting families in mourning and preserving free speech.

“I think of every serviceman or woman we’ve lost in Massachusetts since I became governor. You share the profound loss,’’ Patrick said during an appearance on WTKK-FM. “It would be shocking to think someone would disrupt a service as solemn and as sad as that. . . . I am also a believer in the First Amendment.’’

Patrick, a former Justice Department civil rights attorney, has made a point of attending funerals of fallen Massachusetts soldiers. He said the question for the courts might be what the right “perimeter’’ is to allow free speech “in a way that respects a solemn occasion.’’

The Westboro Baptist Church, led by pastor Fred Phelps, has frequently protested the funerals of gay military servicemen and women. The case erupted onto the national scene when the father of a fallen Marine successfully sued the church for $11 million, claiming their protest had caused him emotional distress. The US Court of Appeals overturned the verdict on First Amendment grounds, and the case has landed in the country’s highest court.

The church has led protests at military funerals that feature antigay slogans, and the actions have been roundly condemned by politicians and organizations on both sides of the aisle. However, news groups and civil liberties organizations have filed briefs calling on the court to protect the church’s right to protest, arguing that “to silence a fringe messenger because of the distastefulness of the message is antithetical to the First Amendment’s most basic precepts.’’

Patrick’s rivals for the Corner Office were more direct in their rejection of such protests.

“The men and women of the United States armed forces who have given their lives for our freedom deserve all the honor and respect we can offer,’’ independent Timothy P. Cahill said in a statement to State House News Service. “I hope the Supreme Court recognizes that these sideshow protests are not legitimate dissent, but a cynical attempt to infringe on the religious and privacy rights of families to grieve with dignity.

“The protesters can make their voices heard anywhere else under the First Amendment, but a funeral setting is inappropriate. Our laws should give families the room to mourn without excessive disruption by outside groups.’’

Through a spokesman, Republican Charles D. Baker said, “I respect freedom of speech and assembly, but protesting at the funeral service of someone who has made the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of this great nation is disgraceful and the wrong thing to do.’’

Richard R. Tisei, Baker’s running mate, said protesters should not be allowed to disrupt military funerals, and he said he hopes the Supreme Court upholds legislation to that effect.

“I can’t imagine what the families are going through, to walk in and see some of the signs and slogans,’’ Tisei said. “You can’t desecrate the flag, you shouldn’t be able to disrupt a funeral. I think we treat our military differently.’’

Tisei said he did not believe that laws that make sure protesters are “far enough away and make sure they’re not disrupting’’ would run afoul of the First Amendment.

Correction: Because of an error by the State House News Service, some versions of this story incorrectly described the deceased soldiers whose funerals are protested by the Westboro Baptist Church of Kansas. The church members do not choose which funerals they protest based on the sexual orientation of the deceased.

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