By Mary Gail Hare
February 17, 2007
Members of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka observed the law's limitations, staying 100 feet from the Oak Grove Baptist Church in Bel Air, where friends and loved ones were paying homage to Cpl. Jennifer M. Parcell, a 20-year-old Marine killed in Iraq earlier this month.
"This was nothing personal to her," said Abigail Phelps, a member of Westboro Baptist, whose sign read, "Thank God for dead soldiers."
"No law will keep us off-message or off-task," she said. "This law was only put in place because people don't like the words on our signs."
Members of the church show up at funerals for young people nationwide because members say the deaths are God's punishment for condoning homosexuality. The group contacted the Harford County Sheriff's Office before the funeral to make sure its protest was within the newly defined boundaries, said Sgt. Chris Presberry, sheriff's spokeswoman.
The department was prepared to make arrests at the funeral, if demonstrators violated the state law, which was enacted last year and took effect in October.
"People were screaming expletives at us," Phelps said.
The demonstrators, who plan to be at a funeral today for two brothers who drowned after falling through the ice near their Cambridge home, left soon after the service began.
"We give our message to those going to the funeral, and that is that God is killing American children as punishment for sin," said Megan Phelps-Roper, a Westboro member.
Martha Benton, Parcell's maternal aunt, said she noticed the protesters and told them to go home.
"They wasted their time here," Benton said. "Nobody cared what they had to say."
About 30 members of the Patriot Guard, each carrying a large American flag, lined the entrance to the Bel Air church yesterday, hours before the service, to shield mourners.
"We feel a need to honor our soldiers for their sacrifice and to show the family that we care," said David Shea, assistant state captain for the Patriot Guard, adding he was aware of the demonstrators across the street.
The Patriot Guard, many of them veterans, remained in place throughout the service, despite bitter wind and biting cold, and then joined the funeral procession to the cemetery.
Marine Cpl. Joseph Parcell, the older brother of Jennifer Parcell, made his way among the Patriot Guard, thanking them.
"It is our honor," Shea said.
Maj. Kenneth Quiner, Jennifer Parcell's commanding officer, traveled to Maryland from the Okinawa base where she was stationed.
"I knew this corporal, but I wanted to know where she came from," he said at her funeral. "I am truly amazed at this beautiful, strong family."
He praised Parcell, a combat support specialist, for her courage, tenacity and dedication.
"She served her country with honor and never faltered," Quiner said. "She made everyone else meet her at the highest level. The legacy and memories of her life are burnt deep in our hearts."
He ended his remarks with the Marine Corps motto, "Semper Fidelis" - always faithful.
At Bel Air Memorial Gardens, long after a bugler played tap " and seven Marines fired a 21-gun salute, Quiner stood solemnly by the fallen Marine's casket. He remained there until the last mourner had left the cemetery.
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