Bill to shield mourners passes state Senate 47-1
A bill to restrict protests at military funerals for fallen Hoosiers has been expanded to include all burials.
Setting aside concerns about free speech rights, the Indiana Senate on Thursday passed the measure 47-1. The legislation now moves to the House, where it is expected to pass.
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Sen. Brent Steele, R-Bedford, sponsored the bill after hearing about a Kansas religious sect that picketed the August funeral of Army Staff Sgt. Jeremy Doyle in Martinsville. The sect hoisted signs with slogans such as “God blew up the troops.” Doyle was killed by an improvised explosive device in Iraq.
The group, Westboro Baptist Church, has protested at five other military funerals in Indiana and a total of about 80 military funerals in 30 states, saying that soldiers are dying because of the United States’ tolerance for gays.
At the Jan. 10 Evansville funeral of Army Pvt. Jonathan Pfender, killed in December by a roadside bomb in Iraq, members of the church stomped on the American flag and held signs thanking God for the explosives.
The group’s invasion of a family’s grief is “unconscionable,” Steele said.
He amended his bill to cover all funerals after receiving an e-mail arguing that protecting the sanctity of funerals should not be limited to those of soldiers.
The bill makes it a Class D felony, punishable by up to three years in prison and a $10,000 fine, for anyone engaged in disorderly conduct within 500 feet of a grave site, funeral home or funeral procession.
Westboro Baptist officials have said they would challenge the bill should it become law.
Questions have been raised about whether the bill would bar not only those who are disorderly, but anyone who silently protested with a placard.
“I understand there’s confusion on the bill. If there is, we’ll correct it in the House,” Steele told reporters moments after the Senate approved it. “My intent is: you don’t come within 500 feet of a grave (to conduct any protest),”
Sen. Anita Bowser, D-Michigan City, a retired professor of constitutional law, said the legislation raised freedom of speech concerns for her. “At the same time I know our freedom is not absolute,” she said in explaining her “yes” vote.
This type of behavior at funerals could incite violence, she said, and is no more protected than yelling “fire” in a crowded theater.
Kansas has adopted a law addressing funeral protests, and other state legislatures are considering similar bills.
Gov. Mitch Daniels has not said whether he would sign the bill if it reaches his desk.
He called the group’s behavior horrific but said government must be “very, very careful where genuine free speech rights on matters of public debate and consequence are concerned.”
“I think the First Amendment occasionally has been used on behalf of things I don’t believe James Madison and the other founders would have understood,” Daniels said. “But this speech, however abhorrent, may well be covered by that.”
The lone vote Thursday against the bill came from Sen. Billie Breaux, D-Indianapolis.
“A lot of people, I’m sure, objected to (civil rights) protests in the ’60s, but it was right and for the right cause. This is for the wrong cause, but who’s to make that determination?”
Fran Quigley, executive director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana, said his organization “certainly understands and appreciates the need for families to be able to grieve” without being besieged by protests.
But, he said, the size of the buffer zone — 500 feet, the length of nearly two football fields — is so large that “it could possibly sweep (away) some folks the legislature isn’t intending to affect.”
Besides, he added, existing statutes on disorderly conduct and criminal trespass already address the issues raised by Steele’s legislation.
Steele said the possibility that the protests could spark a violent reaction makes it a public-safety issue. “When people are at their most frazzled time emotionally, what little thing would it take for a loved one to tee off and go back there and hurt someone?” he asked.
The bill now moves to the Indiana House for further debate in committee before a vote by the full House.
If it is signed into law by Gov. Mitch Daniels, the measure would take effect July 1.