Hecklers harass families of US soldiers killed in Iraq

Five women sang and danced as they held up signs saying "thank God for dead soldiers" at the funeral of an army sergeant who was killed by an Iraqi bomb.

For them, it was the perfect way to spread God's word: America was being punished for tolerating homosexuality.

For the hundreds of flag waving bikers who came to this small town in Michigan Saturday to shield the soldier's family, it was disgusting.

"That could be me in that church," said Jackie Sandler whose son Keith is currently serving his second tour of duty in Iraq.

The fringe group of fire and brimstone Baptists from Kansas has been courting controversy for more than 15 years, traveling the country with their hateful signs and slogans.

The Westboro Baptist Church first gained national notoriety when they picked the funeral of Matthew Shepard, a Wyoming student who was murdered in 1998 for being gay.

They have since picketed the funerals of Frank Sinatra and Bill Clinton's mother, celebrated the terrorist attacks of September 11 as an act of God's wrath, and have even targeted Santa Claus and the Ku Klux Klan.

But it was the callousness and cruelty of harassing the grieving families of soldiers at dozens of funerals across the country that has sparked a grassroots movement of bikers determined to drown out the jeers and taunts.

In Flushing, Michigan they turned their leather-clad backs to the five women and held flags and tarps up so that mourners walking past wouldn't see the signs saying "God hates fags," "fag vets" and "America is doomed."

Many found it hard to hide their anger when Margie Phelps, the daughter of Westboro's founder, called out "All this for little old us? Oh, you shouldn't have. I feel so special," before she started singing "the Pope, the Pope, the Pope is on fire. He don't get no water let the heretics burn" in front of a Catholic church.

The glee with which the women hurled insults made John Franklin, 64, sick to his stomach.

"This guy's family deserves a peaceful funeral. It's not right what they're doing," said Franklin, who fought in the Vietnam War. "The only reason they're able to walk around like that is because the veterans fought for their freedom."

While Westboro's congregation remains stable at around 100 people - most of whom are the extended family of founder Fred Phelps - the ranks of the Patriot Guard Riders has swelled to more than 16,000 in just a few months.

Four states have enacted legislation barring protests at funerals and a dozen more are in the process of introducing bans. But it is unlikely that the bans will stand up to legal challenge.

The group is careful to protest in public spaces and is well aware of its constitutional rights - 11 of Phelps' 13 children are lawyers.

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