By Chris Fish
BREVARD - Nearly 1,000 supporters formed a "human shield" on Wednesday, Aug. 8, in an attempt to block the family of a deceased Palm Bay soldier from the threat of a protest made by the Westboro Baptist Church.
Members of the church, an organization known to protest military funerals, however, did not show.
"We heard that the family was changing the funeral to private, and we have always said we would never protest at a private funeral," said Fred Phelps Jr., Westboro Baptist Church member and son of church leader Fred Phelps, from his home in Topeka, Kan. "This is not about the families, this is about the public forums these funerals have. When you go to these things, you see mayors, Congress and religious leaders (attending). They are all shameless. They use these funerals for their personal platforms. When someone else shows up, telling the other side, they don't want to let them talk."
While a funeral for Spc. Justin L. Horsley was originally scheduled for the afternoon on Wednesday, the family decided to hold a private ceremony earlier at Ammen Family Cremation and Funeral Care in Palm Bay.
Hours later, however, nearly 1,000 people still lined the funeral home's sidewalk to show support for the Horsley family.
The idea for the "human shield" was initiated after members of the Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church announced in a press release that they intended to protest the funeral of Spc. Horsley. In response to the press release, a Facebook event was created in the hope of attracting members from the community to create the shield.
"I'm here to honor the Horsley family for the loss of their son," said Dale Davis, one of the original organizers of the Facebook event, outside the funeral home. "This is not a funeral procession. This is nothing but a human shield, where we stand peacefully, silently and we respectively honor a young man from our community against such a vile protest."
According to the Department of Defense, Spc. Horsley was killed by an improvised explosive device on July 22 in Afghanistan.
Members of the Westboro Baptist Church said it is within their First Amendment right to protest the soldier's funeral.
"We are not looking for a fight," said Mr. Phelps, two days prior to the scheduled funeral. "We are dealing with criminals. The military is full of brutes."
Recently, U.S. Congress passed a bill called "The Honoring America's Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act of 2012," which President Barack Obama signed into law on Monday, Aug. 6.
According to the bill, demonstrators will no longer be allowed to picket military funerals two hours before or after a service. The bill also requires protestors to be at least 300 feet away from grieving family members.
Mr. Phelps said his congregation plans to fight this new law.
"We are publicly going to challenge the law," he said. "It is a blatant violation of the First Amendment."
Despite the private ceremony and the church group not showing, some supporters of Spc. Horsley spent more than three hours, standing their ground, at the site.
"I'm not here as the Mayor today. I'm here to show respect for someone who did the ultimate sacrifice," said Palm Bay Mayor John Mazziotti. "(The support) is good and nice, but I think the family wanted some privacy, and I think we should have respected that. I still appreciate all of the support."
Palm Shores Mayor Carol McCormack, who was also present, said it was her respect for fallen soldiers that brought her to the event.
"I'm here today to honor this young man, who made the ultimate sacrifice," she said. "It doesn't matter what city you're from; we're here to honor him and protect his family from such an intrusive and evil thing."
Other veterans who came to show their support for Spc. Horsley said they disagreed with the Westboro Church protesting the funeral, yet understood why its members could protest if they wanted.
"I'm here because I need to be here," said Stephen Hamrick, a Desert Storm veteran. "The sickening part about it is that we fought and bled for the right for them to have this protest, and that is, unfortunately, the double-edged sword of freedom."
Jay Sylvester, also a veteran, said he, too, understood why the church could protest the funeral, but disagreed with them for wanting to do so.
"I'm a veteran, and I think that no one should be treated this way. I don't care who you are, or what you are, you should have the dignity to die in peace," he said. "Because of this young man who died for our country, (the church is) able to protest. They should try and go to Afghanistan and see if they can do this. Because of us veterans, they are allowed to do this."
Mr. Phelps responded to the criticism his church receives for its practices.
"When Christ was on the earth, he said his servants will be hated," he said. "These people just don't want to hear the truth. This country has turned over to the (homosexuals), and we are paying the price."
Mr. Hamrick said he has dealt with the Westboro Baptist Church in the past.
"The last couple of times I've dealt with them, a couple of cars pulled up and a handful of people got out with signs," he said, during the event, surrounded by fellow shield participants. "When you see the signs, you are going to be sickened by it. I don't care if they don't show up. That would be even better because we did."