A Kansas-based church group that often protests military funerals partially spurred a bill restricting those demonstrations to unanimously pass the state Senate Monday.
The bill requires a 500-foot buffer zone between a funeral, burial or funeral procession and its protesters. Those that come closer than 500 feet could be charged with a Class C misdemeanor, punishable up to six months in jail and a $500 fine.
“I think it gives dignity to a solemn ceremony,” said Sen. Diane Black (R-Hendersonville), who sponsored the bill in the Senate. “When people are making a lot of noise and gestures at a time a family is grieving, it’s just not respectful.”
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The church group causing the uproar about the funeral protests has been traveling to states nearby its home base of Topeka. The group, Westboro Baptist Church, then takes advantage of military funerals covered by the news media to spread its anti-homosexuality message.
That message is that God allows U.S. soldiers to be killed in Iraq because America tolerates homosexuals.
“When I first heard about what was going on, I was just appalled and thought we need to do something in our state,” Black said. “This is a Southern hospitality state … and I think most of the people in this state would agree that funerals are not the time to protest.”
Other states as nearby as Kentucky and Missouri agree. Those states have already passed new laws limiting protests at funerals.
But some think that prohibiting protests within a certain distance is unconstitutional.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has been lobbying against Black’s bill, saying the measure violates Americans’ First Amendment rights.
“Even speech that is cruel, distasteful and upsetting is protected by the First Amendment,” said Hedy Weinberg, the executive director of ACLU of Tennessee. “The best answer to this speech is not speech restrictions, but more speech.”
Weinberg said the bill, while “well intentioned,” could have unintended side effects that would make it illegal, for example, to protest within 500 feet of the funeral of a person who died while in police custody.
In addition, Weinberg said the bill is not necessary because standing state and local laws already prohibit trespassing on private property.
“These distances are far too restrictive on free speech rights,” Weinberg said.
But the state Attorney General’s Office disagrees.
Paul Summers, the attorney general, recently opined that the 500-foot buffer zone, as well as another bill requiring a 1,000-foot restriction, is constitutional as written. The attorney general’s opinion said the bills’ specific, rather than general, language make them constitutionally defensible.
That specific language prohibits “picketing, protesting and demonstrating” at funerals, burials and funeral processions within 500 feet.
Summers wrote that the shorter the distance required, the greater chance the bill had to hold up in court. The second bill, which requires a 1,000-foot buffer zone, will likely be heard in the Senate Judiciary Committee today. If that bill passes, it would supersede Black’s measure because it requires a greater distance between the mourners and the protesters.
Black said her bill is not the only one that requires a distance between participants and demonstrators. A similar law prohibits candidates and campaign signs from being within 100 feet of a polling place.