Will protesters mar soldier's funeral?

Published: Friday, June 8 2007 12:15 a.m. MDT

A new state law that makes it a crime to protest within 200 feet of funerals or memorial services may be enforced for the first time this weekend at the funeral of a Utah soldier killed in Afghanistan.

South Jordan police are preparing to deal with demonstrators who have threatened to picket the funeral of Sgt. Jesse Blamires, 25, who was killed last week in a helicopter crash. The funeral for the Sandy native is scheduled for Saturday in South Jordan.

The Westboro Baptist Church, whose members demonstrate at soldiers' funerals across the nation, has listed Blamires' funeral on its Web site as a location for a planned protest. The church is based in Topeka, Kan.

If the group follows through on its promise to protest, that action will be subject to restrictions approved during the 2007 legislative session.

HB205, sponsored by Rep. Ron Bigelow, R-West Valley City, makes it a class B misdemeanor to demonstrate in a noisy and disruptive manner within 200 feet of a funeral or memorial service from an hour before the funeral to an hour after the service. The law prohibits protesters from blocking or impeding a funeral procession, but it doesn't ban them from quietly demonstrating in view of those attending the funeral or along the procession route.

South Jordan spokesman Chip Dawson said the city's police department has been making preparations for the funeral in the event of a protest. Police are consulting maps to determine where the group can and can't demonstrate, and they've been seeking advice from other area police departments on dealing with the protesters, Dawson said.

"Our goal is to protect the privacy of the family," he said.

Blamires was one of seven people killed May 30 when an Army CH 47-Chinook crashed after it was apparently shot down by Taliban militants, an attack that killed everyone on board — five U.S. soldiers, a Canadian and a Briton, NATO officials said.

It was the second deployment for Blamires, who is survived by his wife, Kim, and two young daughters, 5 years old and 9 months. The family is living in Fort Bragg, N.C., where Blamires was stationed.

Shirley Phelps-Roper, Westboro Baptist Church spokeswoman and daughter of Pastor Fred Phelps, said Thursday that "less than 10" members of the church will "peacefully picket" Blamires' funeral by holding signs displaying their group's anti-homosexual message.

The church contends that soldiers' deaths are God's way of punishing the United States for its tolerance and acceptance of homosexuals.

The group has threatened to demonstrate at a handful of military funerals in Utah in the past year but has yet to attend one. The group was among protesters who flocked to Salt Lake City during the 2002 Olympic Games. Members previously protested outside The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' Conference Center in October 2001.

Kelly "Tinman" Crouse, state captain of the motorcycle group Patriot Guard Riders, said the Blamires family has requested that his group attend the funeral.

"Our primary mission is to shield the family from any uninvited guests," Crouse said. "If we don't have to shield the family, we'll be there to show respect for the hero who has passed on."

Crouse said he doesn't like to talk about the Westboro Baptist Church because he doesn't want to give the group any unnecessary publicity. He did, however, say the group has a habit of threatening to protest and not showing up.

"They've threatened to be (at soldiers' funerals) on three occasions I know about," Crouse said, "and they haven't made it yet."


Contributing: Rebecca Palmer


E-mail: jpage@desnews.com

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