Freedom: A complex, priceless commodity

One could easily argue that what I'm about to write about — the Westboro Baptist Church — has nothing do with Veterans Day, which our nation will soon celebrate.

I think one could just as easily argue that this church and its band of protestors pretty much sums up the very essence of Veterans Day.

It is, indeed, a paradox.

By now, we're all familiar with this church and its activities, which have been in the news; it seems, for over a decade now.

Members of the Westboro Baptist Church, consisting almost entirely of the family members of its founder, the Rev. Fred W. Phelps of Kansas, have attended hundreds of military funerals toting signs that read, "God Hates the USA" or "Thank God for 9/11." They call the deaths punishment for Americans' immorality. No one is immune is it seems; a few members even showed up recently in Sioux Falls on the day of Sen. George McGovern's funeral.

One would hardly deem what Phelps and his followers are doing to be humane or upstanding or patriotic. But, the fact that he's able to do it at all is a teachable moment for all of us.

Phelps is, by the very simplest definition, being an American. Maybe not a decent American, but he's one of us, with the same rights of free expression we all enjoy.

Ironically, the U.S. Constitution, the document that has laid the groundwork for over two centuries now to guarantee that "Congress shall pass no law" that would short us of the basic freedoms we all enjoy, is a living, breathing document kept safe for all of us by the very soldiers who lay down their lives, year after year, decade after decade, to protect it.

For all of us. Even Phelps and his motley crew.

In early 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a grieving father's pain over mocking protests at his Marine son's funeral must yield to First Amendment protections for free speech. The 8-1 decision in favor of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., was the latest in a line of court rulings that, as Chief Justice John Roberts said in his opinion for the court, protects "even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate."

There's likely a good chance that Phelps and his disruptive influence will be around for a long, long time.

So it was with a bit of delight that I uncovered an old news clipping in my files telling of how citizens battled Phelps and his followers with their own weapon: a protest.

Bikers' groups such as the Patriot Guard have patrolled funerals to hide the sight of the Westboro Church members. At a funeral in Lamar, MO, hundreds of people lined the street waving American flags in front of the Westboro protesters.

A few days later, in a different Missouri town, the Westboro members never even made it to the protest. Nearly a quarter of the residents of Weston, MO, turned out with huge American flags and patriotic music. When Westboro church members saw the crowd, they left the funeral.

It is an instance that would delight both those who immerse themselves in the study of Constitutional law, and in the laws of physics.

When children, we all learned Newton's Third Law: To every action there is always an equal and opposite reaction. Perhaps we never realized how physics is also present in our day-to-day efforts to maintain civility.

I'm not saying this is a perfect solution, but so far, there just doesn't seem to be one.

We don't want funerals to become sideshows. We don't want Westboro people showing up outside a church filled with mourners, and frankly, while the counter-protesters hearts are in the right place, it would be, well, decent and humane if they didn't have to show up in the first place.  

Freedom is a complex thing. There are no easy solutions to some of the challenges it brings.

It is what makes it a priceless commodity, doled out, without question, to you and me and every American.

And protected, without question, by hundreds of thousands of women and men in uniform who have made the ultimate sacrifice because they knew all along that freedom is more precious than life itself.

Every time I read about Phelps, I think about the freedom of expression that he enjoys, even though he practices it in a strange and abusive manner. And I think of the people in the military, both past and present, who make it possible for even the most extreme among us to enjoy our complicated yet wonderful freedom.

Honoring our soldiers in this way — taking time to personally recognize what they've done to allow us to remain free — is ultimately the best way to counter Phelps and his hate-filled crusade.

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