Wednesday, February 08, 2006

A Double Standard

The Wisconsin State Legislature recently passed the Funeral Dignity Protection Act, designed to protect the grieving families of fallen soldiers in Wisconsin, though the law is worded broadly enough to cover any funeral service for anyone. Essentially it requires protestors at a funeral to remain at least 500 ft. away from the service for one hour before until one hour after such service is completed. It was a bi-partisan effort that passed both houses of the legislature with unanimous support and was signed into law by Governor Doyle yesterday.

I think they've made a big mistake, and I'll tell you why:

First, lets be a little more clear on why this law was passed, and others like it are facing passage in other states. Despite what several more conservative sources have claimed, this has nothing to do with anti-war protestors. That rumor has circulated mainly as more fodder for the "liberals don't support the troops" myth that conservatives love to spew about. In actuality, this bill was crafted in response to the activities of Reverend Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church.

This happy-go-lucky collection of degenerate human trash has been visiting the funerals of fallen soldiers, both in Wisconsin and elsewhere, to mock the soldiers' deaths with claims that God is punishing the United States for tolerating homosexuality. Of course, Phelps and his crew pretty much define "tolerance" as anything short of mass genocide, so even the very tepid treatment homosexuals receive in the United States offends the church's members. They have a well-rehearsed collection of hate-filled spew, both slogans and songs, that they use to dishonor the fallen soldier and his/her family.

Unfortunately, the kind of ugly ideology that pigs like Phelps spread can sometimes lead normally rational, compassionate folks to get down in the mire too, which is what I believe has happened in this case. For as much as I despise the Westboro Baptist Church and the message it spreads, I am forced to defend their right to spread it. Creating a law that bans their activities is to hand them martyrdom for their sick cause. Now, instead of being an inconsequential fringe group, they may well become an aggrieved party in a civil rights lawsuit over the First Amendment. I can't even begin to tell you how much it would gall me to see the ACLU forced into a position of defending Fred Phelps, but that's just how important the First Amendment is. Even Phelps has the right to free speech, even if it's ignorant and grossly offensive and violating that right helps legitimize his organization. Both political parties that supported this bill have likely aided Phelps in his cause, all in the name of political grandstanding in an election year.

However, as much as the First Amendment issue is a looming problem, it's the double standard of treatment here that really bothers me. See, the Westboro Baptist Church has been organizing protests for years; only the most recent of which have been at the funerals of fallen soldiers. In fact, Fred Phelps, in an interview with NPR, estimated that he had organized some 25,000 protests over the past fifteen years. Many have been at the funerals of AIDS victims or at the offices of organizations that support homosexual rights and issues. My question to the Wisconsin State Legislature is this: if the message of the Westboro Baptist Church is so offensive that their protests at soldier funerals must be curbed, then why wasn't it offensive enough to warrant legislation protecting the funerals of AIDS victims?

Just to re-emphasize, the Westboro Baptist Church has been spreading its message of hate for gays for fifteen years. Not one state in the Union saw fit to restrict Phelps' activities when it was only affecting gays and their families, and that's a disgusting double standard. The family of a dead gay individual grieves just as bitterly for their loss as the family of a fallen soldier. A dead friend or family member is a tragedy regardless of how or why they died. For the Wisconsin Legislature to suddenly step in and say that such protests are too disrespectful to be allowed is political grandstanding of the worst sort. It's popular, especially in an election year, to vocally support the military and its members. Such public displays of nationalism play very well with the rank-and-file voters in any state. Not so much, however, standing up for the rights and dignity of homosexuals. The Westboro Baptist Church has been allowed to plague the gay community for 15 years and only now, when it affects fallen soldiers, does the Legislature decide enough is enough. I can't even imagine how the family who lost a gay member and had to be subjected to a Phelps protest must feel to see that their loved one's dignity didn't mean as much because their loved one didn't put on a U.S. military uniform.

Now, I don't mean this criticism as disrespect to our fallen soldiers. Every soldier lost in Iraq is a travesty, as they died in a war that never needed to happen. I certainly hope that every soldier has the dignity of a proper funeral honoring their sacrifice. I think it's a tragedy as well that so many soldiers' families have had to tolerate Fred Phelps at their loved ones' funerals but not one family has seen George W. Bush there. However, I also believe that ALL Americans deserve respect and dignity in a time of grief, not just those in a popular constituency. And I certainly don't believe that passing a knee-jerk law that likely violates the First Amendment is a viable solution to the problem.

While I agree with the intentions, if not the actions, of the Democrats supporting this bill, I find the blatant hypocrisy of the Republicans who did the same rather disgusting. The Republican party, by and large, supports the same intolerance of gays that the Westboro Baptist Church supports, except that the Republicans just aren't as openly vocal about it. The Defense of Marriage Act, the Gay Marriage Ban Amendment, the denial of medical and retirement benefits to same-sex partners; the list of transgressions against the gay community is long and has been perpetuated by both parties, in all fairness. But it's the Republican party that draws its support from religious fundamentalists like Fred Phelps and it's rather disingenuous for them to suddenly feign moral outrage at Phelps' message. The message that gays are an abomination doomed to Hell is certainly not unique to the Westboro Baptist Church.

I understand completely why this law was passed and, to a certain degree, I commend part of the thinking behind it. But it leaves me outraged at the clear double standard of treatment accorded separately to the gay community and members of the military. Neither group is any more or less a part of our country than the other, and both deserve respect and dignity. We will always have hate groups like the Westboro Baptist Church among us. It's another one of those prices of freedom that we hear so much about. The tacit approval of bigotry against gays supported by many Americans and many of their elected representatives is what allows groups like Westboro to flourish. Restricting the Westboro Baptist Church's right to speech against homosexuality is not the answer. Changing the way Americans think about homosexuality is.

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