Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Westboro's Bizarre Irony

What bizarre irony.

Perhaps those miserable folks at Westboro Baptist Church are actually doing America a favor.

How so, you ask, with your mouth wide open in surprise?  Well, consider Barak Obama's signing Monday of the Honoring America’s Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act of 2012.  Dripping with what sounds like unobjectionable patriotism, this piece of deceptively-named legislation may actually become known not for how it protects people at Camp Lejeune from contaminated groundwater, but for how it defies the very liberties our soldiers have ostensibly died trying to protect.

Sure, homeless veterans and veterans battling the healthcare maze at the Veterans Administration will receive some benefits from this bill, as will the families of America's fourth-largest military base.  But veterans who've been bitterly complaining about the hurtful and hateful rhetoric lobbed at them and their families by supporters of Westboro Baptist at military funerals managed to include in this bill a frightful bit of unAmerican censorship.

Just Because You Can, Doesn't Mean You Should

Unfortunately, no introduction of Westboro Baptist - the church in name only - is needed.  We're familiar with how they've taken to spewing their vulgar rhetoric at the funerals of America's fallen soldiers.  It's a disturbing practice for those of us who haven't experienced it, and it's disgusting for those who have.  Even if you are homophobic, bigoted, hateful of our government, and ignorant of basic Christian orthodoxy, why pick on the family of a soldier who doesn't set policy, and who you never knew existed before you found his obit online?

This bill wants to change that by prohibiting any protests within 300 feet of military funerals during the two hours before and two hours after a service.  And yes, protecting families and their loved ones as they grieve sounds like a good idea that should receive bipartisan support.  Indeed, I'm embarrassed to admit that one of the last moderate Republicans in the Senate, Maine's Olympia Snowe, first proposed this bill, officially entitled the Sanctity of Eternal Rest for Veterans (SERVE) Act.  Technically, it's putting a perimeter around each funeral to protect its dignity.  Isn't that the least our government can do for our fallen soldiers?

Unfortunately, freedom of speech doesn't work that way, does it?  Yes, there's a kind of social perimeter around airport screening areas where you can't talk about bombs and terrorism, but that perimeter is as permissible as bans on yelling "Fire!" in a crowded theater if there's no fire.  It's understood that in the panic which likely would ensue, people could get physically hurt.  But with the Westboro crowd, it's people's emotions that are being hurt, and our Constitution can't protect emotions.

Instead of legislation, some communities have come up with creative ways to counter Westboro, such as forming a human chain between the protesters and funeral attendees, like has been done in Missouri and here in Texas.  Other communities have already tried to take the legal route in an attempt to silence Westboro, and those cases are winding their way through the courts.  You may recall that last year, in Snyder v. Phelps, the Supreme Court ruled our First Amendment protects protesters, even at military funerals.  Unfortunately, since it involved determining the legitimacy of a tort lawsuit by the family, that ruling has been described as a narrow one, meaning that perhaps Snowe and Obama believe this legislation may stand a chance in the courts.

Hopefully, it won't.  Our legal system may need legislation like this, so it can be tried in a court of law, so that the principle of free speech can once again be affirmed by the Supreme Court for future generations.

Yesterday, I wrote about how even though I don't agree with the folks from Westboro, I believe they have a right to prove how ugly they can be with what they say.  It's the same with flag-burning, purportedly an act of defiance, but in actually, simply proof of the burner's sad ignorance of how our government protects the right to speak one's mind.

Our Constitution can't protect emotions, and it can't necessarily prevent us from being stupid, either.

But maybe this is where Westboro actually is helping to protect us.  Nothing but pure political posturing made the President sign this legislation including the rider about protesting the protesters.  He has to know that it's unconstitutional, and that he may be out of office - either this January, or in 2016 - before this bill gets dragged all they way back up to the Supreme Court.  Westboro is already salivating over the legal battle they're planning on waging over it.  Meantime, Obama can make himself look heroic to America's veterans, even if many liberals wince at yet another free-speech embarrassment, right on the heels of the Chick-fil-A controversy.

Now can you see why rulings by the Supreme Court that fall in favor of free-speech advocates are more necessary than ever before?

The Westboro Cloud's Silver Lining

Indeed, getting legislation passed against Westboro is hardly a political slam-dunk, since although many veterans may applaud it, 70% of Americans believe free speech needs to stay free, even if it's ugly.  Granted, that's actually a scary percentage, since it should be even higher.  But funerals are an emotional topic, and understandably so.  That's one reason the folks at Westboro attack mourners - it's an anti-social thing to do that gets them a lot of free publicity.  Yet, while the rest of us find it painfully disturbing, didn't those servicemembers die for the sake of liberty?  In a sense, Westboro is celebrating - albeit pervertedly - the cause for which these grieving families lost their loved ones.

In fact, if the media would help turn this dialog around to show how Westboro can symbolize the liberty for which our soldiers die, I wonder how long those misguided Baptists would keep up their publicity stunts.

Another consideration with Westboro, however, is that their demonstrations will likely flame-out sooner rather than later.  Its adherents aren't big in number, and they don't seem to be interested in trying to make themselves popular.  Their "church" may transition into some other form of group capable of sustaining their deviant cause, but don't you think it must be exhausting and physically stressful to remain so bitter and fraught with spite over the long haul?  They must have to keep their cardiologists on speed-dial.
Still, as long as they've got fight left in them, Westboro will continue to be an embarrassment to organized religion and a loathsome burden for families of deceased servicemembers.  Sometimes, free speech isn't pretty.  But as bad as it may sound, I hope Westboro keeps winning in the courts.  And although I'm disgusted with Westboro, I'm also disgusted with Snowe and Obama, since those two politicians are making me say that!

Maybe this process, however unseemly, could help stave off the demise in personal liberties which such short-sighted politicians, with their sloppy legislation, seem willing to perpetrate on our country.

Not that Westboro's mean-spirited agitators can claim any moral victory.

But maybe the rest of us will.

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