President Bush, visiting America’s most hallowed military burial ground to “honor this place where valor sleeps,” said Monday the nation must persevere in the war against terrorists for the sake of those have already given their lives in this cause.
Noting that some 270 fighting men and women of the nearly 2,500 who have fallen in Iraq are buried at Arlington National Cemetery, Bush said, “We have seen the costs in the war on terror that we fight today.”
The president spoke after laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns. He ventured across the Potomac River on a sun-splashed Memorial Day just a short time after signing into law a bill that restricts protests at military funerals.
At the White House, Bush signed the Respect for America’s Fallen Heroes Act,” passed by Congress largely in response to the activities of a Kansas church group that has staged protests at military funerals around the country, claiming the deaths symbolized God’s anger at U.S. tolerance of homosexuals.
The new law bars protests within 300 feet of the entrance of a national cemetery and within 150 feet of a road into the cemetery. This restriction applies an hour before until an hour after a funeral. Those violating the act would face up to a $100,000 fine and up to a year in prison.
Monday’s observance at Arlington National Cemetery was not a funeral, so demonstrators were free to speak their minds at the site.
And several did.
Approximately 10 people from the Washington, D.C., chapter of FreeRepublic.com, a self-styled grass roots conservative group, held signs at the entrance of the cemetery supporting U.S. troops. A large sign held by several people said, “God bless our troops, defenders of freedom, American heroes.”
They were faced off against a handful of anti-gay protesters who stood across a four-lane highway as people headed toward the national burial grounds.
The FreeRepublic.com group was trying to counter demonstrations by the Kansas-based group, led by the Rev. Fred Phelps. He previously had organized protests against those who died of AIDS and gay murder victim Matthew Shepard.
In an interview at the time the House passed the bill that Bush signed Monday, Phelps charged that Congress was “blatantly violating” his First Amendment rights. He said that if became law, he would continue to demonstrate but would abide by the law’s restrictions.
Bush signed a second bill Monday that allows combat troops to deposit tax-free pay into individual retirement accounts. Supporters of the legislation argued that rules governing these accounts were punishing soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq who earn only tax-free combat pay.