WASHINGTON — President Obama on Monday signed legislation known as the “Honoring America’s Veterans and Caring for Families Act of 2012” into law.
The bill’s primary objective is to provide health benefits for Marines and families who were exposed to contaminated water at a North Carolina Marine base for decades.
But the law also bans protesting within 300 feet of military funerals, and prohibits protests within two hours before or after a service — a clause that has direct implications for the Westboro Baptist Church, the Kansas-based anti-gay fringe church which the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League both labeled a hate group.
The Topeka, Kansas-based church led by pastor Fred Phelps is notorious for its angry, anti-gay protests, “God hates fags” signs, and picketing at funerals of deceased U.S. military personnel with signs declaring “Thank God for dead soldiers.”
“The graves of our veterans are hallowed ground. And obviously we all defend our Constitution and the First Amendment and free speech, but we also believe that when men and women die in the service of their country and are laid to rest, it should be done with the utmost honor and respect,” said President Barack Obama, in remarks at the signing ceremony.
The Westboro Baptist Church first drew national attention during the 1998 funeral of slain Wyoming university student Matthew Shepard, when its members protested with neon signs depicting stick figures of males engaged in anal sex, and other signs with messages that proclaimed “God Hates Fags” and “Fags = AIDS = Death.”
In recent years, Westboro has drawn scrutiny for protests at the funerals of U. S. service members killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan, which members claim is due to America’s growing acceptance of the “fag lifestyle,” according to Phelps’ daughter Shirley Phelps-Roper.
The law counters a 2011 Supreme Court ruling, which found that displays such as Westboro’s were protected under the First Amendment.
The bill also ends a decade-long struggle for those who serve at Camp Lejeune — many of the veterans and their families who were based in Camp Lejeune in the years when the water was contaminated, will now have access to extended medical care.
“Sadly, this act alone will not bring back those we’ve lost,” said Obama. “But it will honor their memory by making a real difference for those who are still suffering.”