A growing number of US states are considering limiting protests at military funerals amid fears of anti gay picketing from conservative church groups.
The bills would ensure that states regulate funeral protests in response to the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., after they said American military deaths are God’s retribution for tolerance of gay people. Church members have publicly given thanks for soldiers’ deaths at military funerals, raising calls to regulate the protests.
Democratic Delegate Mary-Dulany James, who sponsored the bill said: “We shouldn’t have to subject any family to this, I’m stunned anybody would do that when people are grieving.”
The legislation would ban protests at funerals within an hour before they start and would make it illegal to obstruct mourners from funerals or burials. Violations would be punishable by up to 90 days in jail or a $1,000 fine.
Sponsors conceded that the bill could lead to free-speech lawsuits if it is passed. US Courts have previously ruled that some limits on free speech, like the laws banning protesters from blocking access to abortion clinics, are allowed.
“We really don’t think we’re cutting off their rights to protest or speak their minds,” said Delegate Joan Cadden, D-Anne Arundel County. “I just feel it’s so important for veterans and their families. It’s such an emotionally sad time for them.”
A Church of Topeka member told the Associated Press the group has never protested a funeral but would sue over the bill if it passes. Another member equated the protest ban to “spitting in the face of God.”
“They’re going to give away rights that they claim these soldiers have died for? They’re going to spit in their graves — for what? Some words?”
The Maryland American Civil Liberties Union said it had not had time to look at the bill, but that it may oppose it. The solution to objectionable protests, said ACLU public education director Meredith Curtis, is to speak up even louder in support of the veterans.