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Church group plans protest at Pres. Hinckley's funeral

Published: Thursday, Aug. 27 2015 11:55 p.m. MDT

The tens of thousands of people expected to flock downtown for President Gordon B. Hinckley's funeral Saturday likely will want to avoid the southwest corner of North Temple and State Street.
Salt Lake City officials said the Westboro Baptist Church has applied for a permit for a "religious demonstration" on the corner, just one block east of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Conference Center, where President Hinckley's funeral will be held. The permit was in the process of being approved Wednesday afternoon, said Shawn McDonough, the city's special events administrator.
A handful of members of the church, based in Topeka, Kan., plan to stage a quiet protest during the funeral, displaying picket signs criticizing the late LDS Church leader for being a "lying false prophet" and "leading millions of people astray," said Shirley Phelps-Roper, Westboro Baptist Church spokeswoman and daughter of Pastor Fred Phelps.
Westboro Baptist Church members have picketed several military funerals and other memorial services, saying that the war in Iraq and tragedies such as the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks are God's punishment for the nation's tolerance of homosexuality.
Phelps-Roper also criticized President Hinckley for being too accepting of homosexuals, accusing him of having an "ambiguous voice" about the gay lifestyle rather than taking a firm stand against it.
President Hinckley died Sunday evening after nearly 13 years at the head of the LDS Church. Funeral services are set to begin at 11 a.m. Saturday at the Conference Center, 60 W. North Temple.
Salt Lake police will be handling traffic and crowd control for the funeral, as well as enforcing state law and city guidelines for protesting during funerals, said Det. Jared Wihongi.
Legislation sponsored by Rep. Ron Bigelow, R-West Valley City, and passed by the Utah Legislature last year 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.
In addition, Salt Lake City's permitting process for protests makes it clear to applicants that they cannot touch or attempt to restrain people to get them to listen to their message, and that "fighting words" — personal insults likely to create a violent reaction — are not protected by the First Amendment.
Wihongi said police have the responsibility to maintain order and civility by protecting the protesters' free-speech rights as well as the rights of the general public.
"If they have a permit, they're allowed to be there," he said, "but we'll definitely be enforcing the law."
Police will determine whether the demonstration meets the guidelines of protected free speech. Phelps-Roper, who will not be among the protesters in Salt Lake City on Saturday, said at least one of the picket signs will read, "Hinckley is in hell."
Wihongi said the planned demonstration creates potential for altercations between the protesters and those attending the funeral. He advises people who don't agree with the protesters' message to avoid them or at least ignore them.
"They want an audience," Wihongi said. "They want conflict. If people are aware that (protesters) are going to be there, they can prepare themselves to deal emotionally with that and avoid them if they can."
Members of the Westboro Baptist Church have protested in Utah before. In June, three members of the group demonstrated a few blocks away from a funeral of a South Jordan soldier. The protesters held signs displaying messages such as "pray for more dead soldiers."
The group also was among protesters who flocked to Salt Lake City during the 2002 Olympic Games. Its members previously protested outside the Conference Center in October 2001. The group has scheduled protests for a handful of other funerals in recent years but didn't show up.
LDS Church officials declined to comment Wednesday on the Westboro Baptist Church or its planned protest.


E-mail: jpage@desnews.com

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