Oklahoma Lawman Pushes For Tougher Punishments For Funeral Protesters

Thursday, December 16th 2010, 10:37 pm
By: News 9

Rusty Surette, News 9

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Oklahomans are known for good hospitality, but residents' tolerance and patience is being tested by those who protest at funerals.

One lawman predicts an eruption of violence unless something is done, and that's why he's speaking out and asking for stricter laws and tougher punishments for those who choose to picket funerals.

Members of the Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas are the key players in these controversial protests. Their targets are often funerals for soldiers killed in combat and last weekend they threatened to show up at a funeral for three young Oklahomans killed in a car crash in Pottawatomie County.

The sheriff's office there was warned by several citizens, if protesters showed up at the funeral, there would be problems.

"They actually came up and told us 'We're going to go to jail today if they show up. We respect you, but you're going to have to arrest us,'" said Pottawatomie County Sheriff's Office Captain J.T. Palmer.

Captain Palmer said preparing for the protesters, and rounding up the resources to handle potential violence is something he never wants to do again.

"I think if you take a survey of all of Oklahoma, they don't want these people here," said Captain Palmer.

Last month a protest staged at a soldier's funeral in McAlester, Oklahoma ended with the slashing of tires on a van that belonged to the protesters. In another case, a Wichita, Kansas army vet is charged with plotting to harm members of the Westboro Church.

Oklahoma state law said funeral protesters must stay at least 500 feet away from the property line of the place they're assembling, and they're not allowed to protest an hour before or after the funeral. It's a misdemeanor if the law is broken, but Captain Palmer said lawmakers should make the crime a felony.

Easier said than done, according to Representative Paul Wesselhoft who crafted Oklahoma's law that limits when and where protesters can be at funerals.

"Yes, they have the right, but they're distorting that right," Rep. Wesselhoft said.

The lawmaker goes on to say legislators are always hesitant to make non-violent crimes a felony, because the state prison system is already near capacity. The other reason, according to Rep. Wesselhoft, is the First Amendment. He said if Oklahoma continues to limit free speech, there's a chance the state's law will be challenged and overturned in court.