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Long Beach Press-Telegram: Funeral protests may be restricted
June 02, 2011
STATE: Bill would make groups stay 1,000 feet from burials, services.
SACRAMENTO - A Kansas-based group that has used inflammatory language to protest military funerals nationwide prompted California senators to approve a bill Wednesday restricting how close such protesters can get to funeral services and religious observances.
The bill by Sen. Ted Lieu requires that such groups stay 1,000 feet from a burial site, mortuary or place of worship.
His bill, SB 888, was in response to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in March that said protests by the Westboro Baptist Church are protected free speech. Members of the Topeka, Kan.-based church picket funerals, contending God is punishing the military for the nation's tolerance of homosexuality.
"The court has the power to render stupid decisions," said Lieu , an Air Force veteran. "This is a bill that preserves the sanctity and dignity of funerals."
Lieu , D-Torrance, said his bill falls within the guidelines allowed by the high court's decision. It makes it a misdemeanor to protest within the 1,000-foot perimeter for an hour before or after a funeral. He said more than 40 states have restricted funeral protests.
The bill passed, 36-1, without debate, and now goes to the Assembly. Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, was the lone "no" vote.
"No matter how abhorrent, I believe that freedom of speech must be protected, even if it involves detestable behavior like Nazi's marching through Skokie, Illinois, or protesters at a California funeral," Hancock said after the vote. "There were real constitutional issues concerning our basic rights of freedom of speech in this bill, and that's why I opposed it."
The bill is backed by veterans groups including the American Legion, AMVETS and Vietnam Veterans of America. It is opposed by the American Civil Liberties Union.
"The right to peacefully protest should not be made a crime," said Francisco Lobaco, legislative director for ACLU of California.
He could not say if the ACLU would challenge Lieu 's bill if it becomes law, but noted that Westboro's pastor, the Rev. Fred Phelps, has challenged restrictions set by other states.
The Supreme Court has previously upheld more limited distance restrictions.