Proposed Texas Constitutional Amendment Could Help Fred 'God Hates Fags' Phelps Disrupt Funerals

by Dan Quinn

Why would religious-right groups like Texas Values, the Texas lobby arm of Plano-based Liberty Institute, want to help hate groups disrupt funerals for military servicemembers and the victims of tragedies like last week’s fertilizer plant explosion in West? Those groups are demanding that state lawmakers pass a constitutional amendmentHJR 110/SJR 4 — that could effectively gut legislative protections for such funerals.

In fact, the haters from Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas are planning to be in Waco today protesting at a memorial service for the victims of the West tragedy. Westboro — run by chief hater Fred Phelps — is infamous for its “God Hates Fags” signs and demonstrations at funerals for dead servicemembers and other people around the country. The group praises those deaths and tragedies like the West explosion as God’s punishment for an America that tolerates homosexuality.

But if the Westboro haters want to protest at any funerals in West, they won’t be able to get very close. In 2007, Texas lawmakers passed legislation by state Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, that protects mourners. HB 1093 barred protesters from demonstrating within 1,000 feet of a funeral.

Phelps and his followers say they are simply following their religious beliefs by making asses of themselves and tormenting people already devastated by the deaths of their loved ones. Well, here is what the proposed “Texas Religious Freedom Amendment” — HR 110/SJR 4 — says:

“Government may not burden a person’s or religious organization’s Freedom of Religion. The right to act or refuse to act in a manner motivated by a sincerely held belief may not be burdened unless the government proves it has a compelling governmental interest in infringing the specific act or refusal to act and has used the least restrictive means to further that interest. A burden includes indirect burdens such as withholding benefits, assessing penalties, or an exclusion from programs to access to facilities.”

This constitutional amendment is essentially a modified version of the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which the Legislature passed in 1999 with overwhelming bipartisan support. But opponents — including former state Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, the House sponsor for Texas RFRA in 1999 — have clearly pointed out that the language in this new amendment is so broad and sloppily written that it could undermine the carefully crafted provisions in RFRA, including important civil rights protections. Among the other consequences of passing the amendment could also be gutting the Texas law protecting funerals.

Supporters of the amendment have waved away those concerns. Meanwhile, their demands that lawmakers pass the amendment have only grown more shrill. Check out this sneering email from Texas Values on Tuesday:

“With less than 40 days left in the session, we are quickly approaching the deadline to protect religious freedom this session. It is saddening to see that in a Republican controlled House and Senate, priority bills of the homosexual lobby have been passed out of committees, but critically important protections of our first freedom have yet to receive a single vote.”

So there you have it. Texas Values is desperate to pass a flawed constitutional amendment that could have the effect of helping the anti-gay haters at Westboro disrupt funerals — so desperate, in fact, that the group uses gay-baiting rhetoric itself to pressure lawmakers. We wonder if the lobbyists at Texas Values will be joining Fred Phelps’ crew at the Waco protest today, too.

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