Suffolk moves to outlaw Westboro church's planned funeral picketing

Joseph Theinert from Bravo Troop 1-71 CAV walks Joseph Theinert from Bravo Troop 1-71 CAV walks on patrol in Kandahar, Afghanistan on May 15, 2010. Photo Credit: Getty Images

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Suffolk officials are moving quickly to enact a local law passed this week that makes it a crime to picket at funeral services after an extremist group said it planned to protest a memorial Friday on Shelter Island for a soldier killed in Afghanistan.

On its website, the anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church, based in Topeka, Kan., said it would preach "in respectful, lawful proximity" to the memorial service for 1st Lt. Joseph J. Theinert because "military funerals have become pagan orgies" where they "play 'Taps' for a fallen fool."

The church's planned protest comes as Suffolk lawmakers on Tuesday unanimously approved legislation barring protests from one hour before until one hour after any funeral service.

The Westboro group, which also targets Jews, among others, has staged protests in recent years at military funerals across the country, linked to its religious views against homosexuality. The nonaffiliated Baptist group's news release said "soldiers are dying for the homosexual and other sins of America" in announcing the plan to have six people at the Theinert service.

Theinert, 24, who lived on Shelter Island until leaving for college in 2004, was killed by a makeshift bomb last Friday in Afghanistan. The Theinert service is scheduled to take place at the Shelter Island School.

"We'd go to all the military funerals if we could," said the group's spokeswoman Shirley Phelps-Roper, who said the Suffolk law "won't have an impact" on its plans. Phelps-Roper said the Westboro protest was prompted in part by Suffolk's local law.

"This is very disturbing and it's what this law is designed to stop," said Legis. Steve Stern (D-Dix Hills), the prime sponsor of the bill that. It makes such protests a misdemeanor punishable by up to a $1,000 fine and a year's imprisonment. He said the law was vetted carefully to make sure it didn't infringe on free speech and other constitutional rights.

The surprise announcement by the Westboro group caught Suffolk officials off guard as they hurried Thursday to get the bill signed and recorded with the state.

"It is nauseating to think that anyone would seek to bring greater pain to these families. I don't know how these protesters sleep at night," said Suffolk Executive Steve Levy, who pledged to sign the legislation as soon as possible. Usually, such a process takes two weeks after a local law is passed, said a legislative spokesman.

Levy's office said two Suffolk police officers would be assigned to assist Shelter Island town police in overseeing Friday's service, but county officials said they weren't sure if the group would go ahead with its threat to protest.

The new Suffolk law extends to all memorial services, prohibiting any demonstration within 150 feet of a funeral service and within 300 feet of a cemetery during the proscribed time period.

Officials of Calverton National Cemetery - where 6,500 military burials were conducted last year - say they've not had any protests from the Westboro group.

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