OMAHA, Neb. — A member of the Kansas group that has drawn criticism for protesting at soldiers’ funerals has been arrested for letting her 10-year-old son stomp on a U.S. flag during a demonstration. She promised Wednesday to challenge the state’s flag desecration law in court.
Shirley Phelps-Roper, 49, will be charged with flag mutilation, disturbing the peace and contributing to the delinquency of a minor, Sarpy County Attorney Lee Polikov said Wednesday.
Phelps-Roper, a member of the Westboro Baptist Church, acknowledged that she allowed her son Jonah to stand on the flag Tuesday — something she says is protected by the U.S. Constitution.
“It’s utter nonsense,” said Phelps-Roper, a lawyer. “I don’t know what else to tell you other than that we’ll see them in federal court.”
Phelps-Roper is a daughter of Westboro’s founder, the Rev. Fred Phelps. Members have protested at more than 280 military funerals in 43 states since June 2005, she said.
God's punishment, group argues
The group says the deaths of U.S. soldiers are God’s punishment for a nation that harbors gays and lesbians. Nebraska and 37 other states have laws restricting how close protesters can get to funerals, inspired at least in part by the Westboro protests.
Tuesday’s funeral in suburban Bellevue was for Nebraska Army National Guard Spc. William “Bill” Bailey, who was killed May 25 when an explosive device struck his vehicle in Iraq.
Phelps-Roper was arrested because she was involved in a potentially volatile situation in the presence of Bailey’s friends, relatives and fellow soldiers, Polikov said. Bellevue has a strong military presence, with Offutt Air Force Base located at the south edge of town.
“To come into that environment and communicate what I would call fighting words — provocative language and acts — you can’t do that,” Polikov said. “You might illicit a violent response. That’s against community peace and community law.”
Phelps-Roper was arrested about an hour before Bailey’s funeral when an officer observed the boy stomping on the flag, Bellevue Police Capt. Herb Evers said. She was booked and released after posting $150 bail.
Nebraska’s flag law says: “A person commits the offense of mutilating a flag if such person intentionally casts contempt or ridicule upon a flag by mutilating, defacing, defiling, burning, or trampling upon such flag.”
Flag mutilation and disturbing the peace are each punishable by 90 days in jail, a $500 fine or both. Contributing to the delinquency of a minor is punishable by a year in jail, a $1,000 fine or both. All three are misdemeanors.
Polikov said he was considering filing a negligent child abuse charge because Phelps-Roper put her son in a dangerous situation.
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