Topeka council passes resolution critical of funeral pickets

The Associated Press/August 1, 2006

Topeka, Kan. -- The City Council has passed a resolution critical of funeral picketing, but officials drew the ire of the bill's sponsor after removing all references to an anti-gay church that frequently protests at funerals for members of the military.

Mayor Bill Bunten said the amendments were unnecessary and that they took "all of the bite out of it." His resolution had sought to disassociated the city from Topeka's Westboro Baptist Church by condemning its practice of picketing funerals.

The amended resolution was approved Tuesday by a 7-1 vote, after council member Sylvia Ortiz said three lawyers who considered the changes said it would achieve the same purpose as Bunten's initial proposal.

Only City Council member Bill Haynes dissented.

All references to the Westboro Baptist Church were eliminated, and wording that "condemned" picketers was replaced by a statement saying the council neither supports nor approves of funeral picketing. Also removed from the original proposal was a requirement that it be sent to cities, counties and states where Westboro Baptist Church members protest.

Church member Margie Phelps said late Tuesday that Bunten's proposal would have prompted a lawsuit from the church, but she called the amended measure "meaningless."

"I don't think this gets in the way," she said.

The church has outraged communities by showing up at the funerals of military members with anti-homosexual signs, prompting action by state legislatures across the country curtailing funeral pickets.

The church and the Rev. Fred Phelps claim God is allowing soldiers, coal miners and others to be killed because the United States tolerates homosexuals.

Lawrence Wheeler, of Topeka, spoke against the resolution, claiming the group has a constitutional right to picket. Several church members also picketed before the City Council meeting, but none spoke publicly.

Brandy Sacco, the widow of a serviceman whose funeral was picketed in Topeka late last year, spoke in favor of the resolution.

"I'm here tonight asking you guys, pleading, to do something," she said.

Also supporting the resolution was Topeka lawyer Pedro Irigonegaray.

"The threats that you are receiving are made by bullies — bullies who have gotten away with what they've gotten away with because we're afraid," Irigonegaray told the council. "We're afraid to stand up to them."

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