Bill aimed at stifling anti-LDS protesters is full of holes

Rep. Douglas Aagard, R-Kaysville, is pushing a new state law aimed at restricting protesters at the LDS Church‘s General Conferences. To make the bill seem broadly based, he went beyond restrictions on protests at a “place of worship” and extended the rules to protesters at a “health care facility. “

Based on laws limiting protests at abortion clinics, House Bill 131 would make it a Class-B misdemeanor to block access to any health care facility or place of worship by creating a 100-foot buffer zone around the entrance. Inside that zone, protesters would be required to stay at least 8 feet away from another person unless the person consents to receiving literature or hearing the protester’s message.

In addition to the criminal penalties, the bill would allow lawsuits against protesters by those who are accosted.

Aagard said he’s trying to do something about the so-called street preachers who have become more strident in recent years at LDS conferences. At a recent General Conference, two attendees were arrested after getting into scuffles with protesters who were desecrating LDS temple garments.

But Salt Lake City has already taken action to solve the problem of protesters picking fights with conference attendees. In October it designated protest zones, or boxes, in which protesters were required to stand so as not to interfere with the free movement of people entering and exiting the conference center.

And it seems to have worked well — no October surprises. We’ll get another read on the effectiveness of Salt Lake’s ordinance during April’s LDS conference.

So, at first glance, Aagard’s bill seems unnecessary insofar as religious gatherings are concerned. Religious protests just haven’t been a problem statewide. They’ve been pretty much confined to Salt Lake City, and there’s little need for statewide law on the matter.

Likewise, there seems little reason to drag health care facilities into the question. We’re not seeing a lot of cases in Utah of abortion protesters barricading clinics.

If anything, Aagard’s bill is unnecessarily narrow. Why should the state single out religious gatherings and health clinics for special protection? A good law would protect all lawful gatherings and activities. For example, a person attending a controversial movie should not be impeded in getting to the theater entrance. A person patronizing a controversial business should not be blocked.

A good state law would take all such things into account. It would protect any citizen engaged in any lawful activity.

The text of Aagard’s bill only raises questions and creates ambiguities. For example, it says that “A person is guilty of unlawfully interfering with passage to a health care facility or place of worship if, within a radius of 100 feet from any entrance door to a health care facility or place of worship, the person intentionally or knowingly approaches within eight feet of another person for the purpose of passing a leaflet or handbill; displaying a sign or object; or engaging in oral protest, education, or counseling with the other person.”

Such language assumes that only the protester will be moving, when in fact another person may be more responsible for closing the gap. Can a protester standing still within 50 feet of entrance legally hand a leaflet to a person who walks by? We don’t know.

Aagard defines “place of worship” as a church, temple, synagogue, mosque “or other building set apart primarily for the purpose of worship in which religious services are held.” This is anything but clear in a state where religious services (including LDS sacrament meetings) are regularly held in nursing homes and private homes. Other denominations commonly meet in movie theaters, senior citizen centers, schools or empty businesses.

Aagard’s use of the passive voice — “other building set apart primarily for the purpose of worship” — is not at all helpful and introduces the unwelcome hand of the government in determining what qualifies for protection:

Who is doing the “setting apart” of a place of worship? Can anyone do this? How is it done? Can a theater be “set apart” temporarily for worship services and qualify under Aagard’s bill, then return to its unqualified status after the religious gathering? For how much time before and after a religious service will an attendee be protected from an unwelcome protester?

An even more troubling question is this: Are only “official” buildings of established churches recognized as legitimate places of worship, while people gathering in common faith at other locations are not protected? If so, Aagard’s bill makes an unacceptable distinction.

What if a person is on his way to a football stadium to hear an evangelical preacher and is blocked by a protester? Or a person heading to a backwoods revival or mountain prayer service? All represent legitimate religious gatherings.

These are serious questions that go to the free expression of religion in our society. All faiths deserve equal protection.

It might further be asked what qualifies as “worship” under Aagard’s bill: Worship is central to Aagard’s concept, but he doesn’t bother to define it.

Is General Conference a worship service equivalent, say, to an LDS sacrament meeting? We believe LDS leaders would say no. Sacraments are not a part of General Conference, so it might be asked whether there’s a distinction between a “worship” service and a conference at which religious themes are merely discussed.

Prayer opens and closes General Conference, but it does at the Legislature, too, and we don’t usually thing of that as a worship service.

We think we’ve made our point. Salt Lake City’s ordinance has effectively dealt with LDS Conference protesters. Aagard’s bill is well-intentioned but unwise.


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The Daily Herald
Feb. 14, 2005 Opinion
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Religion News Blog posted this on Monday February 14, 2005.
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