Topeka mayor unfazed by church's reaction to e-mail alerts

Associated Press/November 1, 2006

Topeka, Kansas -- Mayor Bill Bunten said he will continue alerting other cities about upcoming funeral protests by a Topeka church group despite the threat of a lawsuit by church members.

Bunten informed the City Council last week that since late last year, he has written to the mayors of cities around the country where Westboro Baptist Church has announced plans to picket military funerals.

He gave the council five letters he had received in return expressing appreciation for the alerts and assuring him that the protests don't reflect badly on Topeka. Those letters were representative of scores of grateful messages he has received from around the country, Bunten said.

Bunten said Tuesday he won't be deterred from the practice by this week's filing of an open records request by attorney Jonathan Phelps, a son of the Rev. Fred Phelps Sr., pastor of Westboro Baptist.

"I'm not breaking any law," Bunten said.

The open records request seeks information on how much time and money the city has spent on Bunten's warnings to other cities. Specifically, it requests all communications to and from Bunten and other Topeka officials about the church's protests since Oct. 29, 2005.

Church spokeswoman Shirley Phelps-Roper said the request seeks to determine if Bunten used his office to interfere with Westboro members' constitutional rights.

Phelps-Roper said the First Amendment bans the federal government from respecting one religion over another and the 14th Amendment extends the ban to state and local government.

She contended the Constitution consequently bans Bunten from using his office or public money to alert other cities of the pickets, adding that Westboro members might sue over the matter.

The church has conducted anti-homosexual protests since 1991, but it gained national attention for its presence at the funerals of U.S. troops killed overseas. The church argues the deaths result from God's anger at the United States for tolerating homosexuality.

Bunten said Tuesday he spends a few minutes a week on the messages and needs no money for postage because he sends them by e-mail.

"We have a standard letter that we send everyone," he said.

Bunten said he helped comply Tuesday with the open records request by providing the city attorney's office with copies of the five communications he mentioned to the City Council, plus a letter of appreciation he received Monday from San Antonio Mayor Phil Hardberger.

In a memo to the City Council last week, Bunten said that before he started alerting other cities to the planned protests, "the presence of the Phelps clan brought a lot of anger toward Topeka and its citizens. 'What kind of a city do you have' was often the disgusted response, and many were even harsher."

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