Protesters are expected, along with hundreds of mourners, at Saturday’s funeral for six members of an Iowa City family. Police say evidence shows 42-year-old Steve Suepple killed his wife and four children late Sunday before taking his own life in a fiery van crash Monday morning.
Iowa City Police Sergeant Troy Kelsay says protesters from a controversial Kansas-based church plan to demonstrate outside the Iowa City church during the Suepple family’s service. He says: "They’re not dummies. They’re not un-intelligent. They do this across the country." The Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, led by Reverend Fred Phelps, sends its members state-to-state protesting at high-profile funerals.
The group has held several protests in Iowa outside the funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq. Sergeant Kelsay says the group’s members are well within their rights to do so as the First Amendment says they can — as long as they stay within the laws.
"They cannot block passage on the sidewalk. They cannot block passage in and out of a parking lot or to a building," Kelsay says. "They are allowed to be on any public right of way." The church put out an inflammatory message at its website, "www.godhatesfags.com", which claims, "God sent the shooter in punishment for Iowa’s sins and in retaliatory vengeance for Iowa having persecuted W-B-C."
Iowa enacted a law after many of the group’s protests, requiring demonstrators to stay at least 500 feet away from services. Kelsay says it’s an unfortunate situation. "You’ve got somebody who’s having a very difficult time maintaining that control and then you have somebody who is intentionally prodding them and pushing buttons," says Kelsay. Iowa City police will have a visible presence at the funeral, not just for the family, but also because this group has asked for law enforcement to be there. Kelsay says their goal is to intervene before anything should get out of hand.