BELFAST, Maine — It started out as a class history project for 17-year-old Searsport Regional High School student Zach Parker, but the more he learned, the more infuriated he became.
How could a church picket funerals of dead soldiers?
Parker said he has an uncle in the National Guard who might be deployed next year.
“I can’t even think about if I had to lay him to rest for the last time and I’d have to deal with these people,” he said.
The people are the members of the Westboro Baptist Church, a Kansas congregation that has made a name for itself by protesting at soldiers’ funerals across the country.
Parker wants to stop them.
The student is working on a plan to propose federal legislation to ban all protests at military funerals.
Three federal laws and laws in at least 40 states, including Maine, limit protests near military funerals, but they do not prevent them. The U.S. Supreme Court has heard arguments against the church’s actions and is expected to rule on it next year.
Parker has contacted U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, who have agreed to listen to the idea, according to spokesmen in their offices.He also has drawn attention from Westboro Baptist Church, which in a Dec. 21 e-mail stated its intent to picket Parker’s Jan. 5 history class presentation on the proposed legislation.
“He is a little guy who is going to try to get yet another law passed respecting these soldiers’ funerals and it’s an amazing phenomenon. Is it not a disconnect to say they are out there fighting for rights, but then say we’re going to whittle away at them with laws? Is that not saying these soldiers died in vain?
Is it not spitting on their graves?” said Westboro Baptist Church spokeswoman and member Shirley Phelps-Roper, who argues that Parker’s proposal acts against First Amendment rights to free speech, to religious freedom and to peaceably assemble.
“We are pro-God. That First Amendment is from God, and they ought to quit screwing with it. Leave it alone,” Phelps-Roper said Sunday.
Parker said he has heard the First Amendment arguments, but said the Westboro Baptist Church’s actions are harassing hate speech, which is not protected by the Constitution.
According to Phelps-Roper, Parker cannot stop them with his proposed legislation. The existing limits have done little to sway the church’s efforts.
“Sometimes we are a mile, two miles, three miles away. It won’t stop us,” she said in a phone interview Sunday. “It’s not about the picket. It’s about the words, and we’re not going to stop saying them.”
Phelps-Roper said the church is trying to tell the nation that Americans perpetually, purposely sin and that God punishes the country by killing soldiers, causing severe snowstorms and other forms of destruction.
Parker disagrees. When the teen presented his project to his peers, they shared his views. Many of the people in his class had relatives serving in the military.
“It affects people of all ideologies. I don’t think people realize it hits so close to home,” Parker said.
In 2007, Westboro Baptist Church members came to Maine to protest the funeral of a 21-year-old Marine from Portland who was killed in action in Iraq.
Although Phelps-Roper said her group plans to picket the teenager’s presentation, the church has threatened picketing other events in Maine before and often does not attend. Parker is prepared either way.
“I’ve invited them to come into the school and listen,” he said. “I hope if they listen they will understand how people are feeling.”
The presentation is not a required part of the project, but Parker said he is known for going beyond what’s necessary for his schoolwork. As he stared down at his two binders full of work Sunday, he smiled as he announced the grade he received. “The highest grade allowable in the high school,” he said. A perfect 4.5 out of 4.5.
“I asked them to find something they’re interested in and become active. What would you do? Some take it to the extreme, which Zach did — it’s his personality,” said Parker’s history teacher, Gail Anthonis. “I think it’s a great way for kids to learn to be politically involved. They may be 17 or 18 years old, but they can do something. They can be heard.”
Parker’s presentation will begin at 5:45 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 5, at Searsport Regional High School. It is open to the public. Those who want to attend may RSVP by e-mailing Parker at firstname.lastname@example.org.