Local court battle over protesting at soldiers’ funeral begins
BY JOE DEJKA
WORLD-HERALD STAFF WRITER
Security was tight Monday as a Kansas woman appeared in Sarpy County Court to answer charges that she mutilated a flag and put her child in danger while protesting at the funeral of a Bellevue soldier.
Although the Sarpy County Sheriff’s Office prepared for a possible protest by members of the Westboro Baptist Church, to which Phelps-Roper belongs, none materialized. Shirley Phelps-Roper, 50, came into the courthouse in the company of just a few family members and her attorney to push for more specifics on the charges she faces.
According to Bellevue Police, Phelps-Roper had her 10-year-old son stomp on an American flag. Church members had obtained a City of Bellevue permit to protest.
The church, founded by her father, has protested across the country at the funerals of numerous soldiers, alleging that their deaths were God’s retribution for America’s toleration of homosexuality.
Last Wednesday, a Maryland jury awarded nearly $11 million to a man who sued Westboro Baptist for invasion of privacy after its members protested at his son’s funeral.
The pretrial hearing centered on a defense motion requesting that the prosecution describe in detail the specific facts that support the charges, which include disturbing the peace, contributing to the delinquency of a minor and negligent child abuse.
Her attorney, Bassel El-Kasaby, argued that without specifics on what actions broke the law in each case and who was victimized he can’t prepare his case.
“I don’t think you can disturb the peace of a police officer or firefighter,” he said.
He said it was “unorthodox” and potential “overreaching” by prosecutors to charge Phelps-Roper with contributing to the delinquency of a minor and negligent child abuse.
“I’d like to know who the victim is and what harm they suffered,” he said.
He said if the flag mutilation charge is found unconstitutional, the other charges likewise may be dismissed, but he needs to know the relationship between the charges.
Deputy Sarpy County Attorney Marc Delman resisted El-Kasaby’s request, saying he didn’t want to limit the basis for the charges.
Delman told the judge that Phelps-Roper had “cleanly, openly and notoriously” made her son step on an American flag while her church protested at the funeral of William Bailey.
“Clearly the Bailey family was very upset by this,” he said. Delman said Phelps-Roper’s contempt for the flag gave rise to the case, but the rest of the charges stemmed from other actions as well, including slogans on signs and other conduct.
Phelps-Roper, outside the courtroom, said she didn’t force her son, Jason, to do anything.
She said he has grown up attending protests and acted on his own.
“He laid it on the ground, and he stood on it. And he stood there peacefully,” she said.
Sarpy County Court Judge Todd Hutton told both sides he wants written arguments on whether the prosecution should specify in more detail the actions that support the charges.
He said he wanted to proceed cautiously and would give both sides ample time to submit arguments. Given the filing deadlines, a decision on the motion could take six months.
Although church members did not protest, a few military veterans gathered outside the courthouse.
Veteran John Henry Pearcy of American Legion Post 32 in Papillion said they showed up to ensure there wasn’t any desecration of the veterans’ memorial monument in the middle of the courthouse plaza and to show their support for the country.
In 1989, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Texas flag desecration statute. A year later, the court struck down a federal flag protection law. In both cases, the court ruled that flag burning was protected speech under the First Amendment.
Sarpy County Attorney Lee Polikov, however, has said that Phelps-Roper’s actions at the Bellevue funeral went beyond civility and common decency and inserted an “overly provocative” message into the emotionally charged funeral.
Last Wednesday, a Maryland jury awarded nearly $11 million to a man who sued the Westboro Baptist Church for invasion of privacy after its members protested at his son’s funeral.
World-Herald Staff Writer Leia Baez contributed to this report.