Controversial group plans protest at soldier’s funeral

By Sharna Johnson: CNJ staff writer

A controversial group known for protesting at the funerals of U.S. soldiers has planned an appearance Monday in Clovis.

Those attending services for Sgt. Leroy Segura Jr. will see members of Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., holding signs bearing messages of morality, according to Shirley Phelps-Roper, a member of the church and longtime activist in its street ministry program.

Segura, 23, died Aug. 4 in Iraq from injuries suffered in a vehicle accident, the Army said. He was serving his second tour in Iraq and was a recipient of the Purple Heart for injuries he received there in 2004, his family said.

Services are planned for 10 a.m. Monday at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Clovis.

Burial will take place in Fort Sumner.

Clovis Mayor David Lansford said protests at the services of a soldier lost at war are not appropriate.

“They have a right to do that (protest) in our country — you can express yourself freely, but courtesy and manners should guide us,” Lansford said. “I would hope they would respect the family at this time of sorrow and refrain from any offensive demonstrations. We’re a community that was hurt by the loss of a patriot and we’re a community that supports the men and women that are in the armed forces,” Lansford said.

Phelps-Roper said violence and hostility are not the goals of the pickets and local ordinances are observed. “We have families, we stand on these streets with our children,” she said.

The signs held by the protesters carry religious-based messages that dead soldiers are the result of God’s wrath, Phelps-Roper said.

A typical protest will include eight to 15 church members who position themselves on public property, holding signs and singing or chanting.

Shielding the family and ignoring the protesters is the best way for a community to deal with the protesters, according to Michael Postel, a spokesperson for the New Mexico chapter of the Patriot Guard Riders. The Riders are a nationwide network of motorcycle riders who attend funeral services of those lost in service to the U.S. Their purpose is to show respect for fallen heroes and to shield the family from protesters.

Postel said he has encountered members of the Westboro Baptist Church before at servicemen’s funerals and advised community members to turn their backs to them and focus on showing support to the family of the slain soldier.

“The best weapon against these people is knowledge of their tactics. They are rather insignificant when confronted with a wall of flags and leather-clad bikers,” Postel said.

Phelps-Roper explained what community members can expect from her group when they stage their protest.

“They’ll see kind-hearted souls standing on a public right of way,” she said. “We come discreetly, we put those signs in the air and then we leave discreetly. We deliver the word of God to your community and get out. We don’t ask anything from you, we don’t take anything from you.”

The group believes diminished morality and lack of obedience to God within the U.S. have brought divine wrath — the war in Iraq is the punishment, Phelps-Roper said.
The church’s Web site reports picketers will arrive about 9:15 a.m. Monday.

City seeks family support
Clovis Mayor David Lansford has asked residents to line the streets from Merriwether toward Seventh, west to Veterans Park, to wave flags and show respect for the Segura family following Monday’s funeral services.

The funeral procession is scheduled to pass between 11:30 a.m. and 11:45 a.m. as they travel to Fort Sumner for burial.