This morning in my Homosexuality and the Bible class we watched a documentary that was done by a local film student. It's called "Fall from Grace" and is about Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church - a group many people have heard of lately for their protests of soldiers' funerals. I know it was shown at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, TX a few weeks ago and Ryan (the KU student film maker) has now been invited to take it to other festivals while he's still trying to finish college and do local showing around Wichita-Kansas City. If you get the chance to see it, I recommend it. It does a great job of showing Fred Phelps and his family members (those appear to be the only people in his church) doing what they do, using their own words and actions. Yes, they okayed the movie and have seen the finished product.
Today was not my first time to watch the movie - it was my third. And even though I've seen it before, it disturbed me and has me continuing to process lots of feelings. Oddly, it isn't the things that Fred Phelps says that bother me so much. The two things that really get to me are (1) the conversation with Fred's grandchildren where you see 5 year old boys using language they shouldn't understand and (2) the military funeral. Now, these things get to me on different levels - kids saying curse words and slanderous terms is loathsome, but military funerals just make me bawl!
Part of the film talks about the Phelps' clan going to soldiers' funerals and Ryan interviewed one particular widow who spoke about her husband and the day of his funeral. Ryan was at the funeral and there are a few clips from the service itself, including the roll call where the soldier's name is said three times with no response. I know this is military tradition, but WHOA! It kills me every time. There is just something about the auditory experience of hearing the deceased's name said aloud that knocks the breath out of your lungs. I remember it happening when my dad died right before Christmas and his name was read aloud during prayers at Christmas mass. I hadn't been ready for it then either.
The state of Kansas just passed a law banning regarding funeral protests, similar to the law W. passed not too long ago declaring that protests had to be a certain distance away and banned on military property. I don't know how I feel about that. One of the hardest points that the documentary makes is that the ACLU took up Fred's case when he was banned from saying his hate speech in places. Whether we like it or not, the right to free speech in this country includes people saying things that we don't like and that are downright hateful. Phelps blatantly steps on the US flag, hangs it upside down, wears it like a skirt, etc. to provoke people - but that doesn't mean he doesn't have the right to do it. Does that mean he has to the right to protest funerals? I think it might, but I'm not a lawyer or a civil rights expert. What do you think? Are these new laws to protect the soldiers' families going too far? Does Phelps have the right to be there and do these things in that particular setting? Why or why not?