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US House votes to restrict military funeral protests

Written by: Staff

WASHINGTON, May 10 (Reuters) The US House of Representatives has voted to crack down on protests at military funerals, responding to a religious group that disrupts burials by claiming soldiers' deaths are God's punishment for tolerating homosexuality.

The bill, which applies to funerals at Arlington National Cemetery near Washington and Veterans Administration cemeteries, passed 308-3 yesterday as lawmakers recounted incidents in their districts over the past year of mourning families enduring taunts and insults.

Members of the Westboro Baptist Church, a small Topeka, Kansas-based fundamentalist Christian church. have been protesting at soldiers' funerals around the United States, claiming that their deaths were God's retribution for the country condoning homosexuality.

They carry signs such as ''Thank God for Dead Soldiers'' and ''Thank God for IEDs,'' referring to the improvised explosive devices that have accounted for many of the U.S. dead in Iraq.

Lawmakers said the bill was crafted carefully to try to avoid infringing upon free speech rights. It bars protests within an hour before and an hour after services, and keeps protesters at least 152 metres from mourners.

Violation would be a misdemeanor.

''As certain protesters do not recognize basic levels of humanity and decency, the bill has become necessary to preserve the reverence of a military funeral,'' said Rep. Deborah Pryce, an Ohio Republican.

Rep. Silvestre Reyes, a Texas Democrat, said the bill's restrictions would be ''limited in time, manner and place to balance'' free speech rights against the rights of mourners.

The Web site of the church, headed by Fred Phelps, has a headline ''God Hates Fags.'' Over a news story about helicopter crash that killed 10 U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, the Web site said, ''Thank God for 10 more dead troops. We wish it were 10,000.'' Lawmakers praised a grass-roots organization of thousands of motorcyclists who call themselves the Patriot Guard Riders that sprang up in response to Phelps' group. They attend funerals to provide a burly human shield for the mourners.

Reuters PDS VP0558

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