Measure is reaction to anti-gay pickets
Written by Michael Gardner
SACRAMENTO — Legislation to set limits on protests at military funerals continues to advance through the Legislature, inching closer to another showdown with Gov. Jerry Brown.
The Assembly Public Safety Committee, which includes some of the most liberal members of the lower house, unanimously passed the measure Tuesday.
The legislation covers all funerals but grew out of controversial anti-gay protests lodged by a handful of members of the small Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan. at military farewells.
Sen. Ted Lieu, a Torrance Democrat carrying the bill, said fair limits are important to show respect for grieving families. The legislation requires the pickets to be at least 500 feet away and on public property. Protests can be held from one hour before the funeral until one hour after the service, under its provisions.
“This is a time, place and manner restriction,” Lieu told the committee. “Senate Bill 661 does not restrict the content of speech. It merely helps protect the sanctity of a memorial service.”
Violators would be subject to a misdemeanor, which could carry a fine of up to $1,000 and six months in jail.
Brown has already vetoed a broader version that had a 1,000-ft. buffer and other restrictions. Brown cited a March 2011 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that the church’s tactics were protected as free speech under the First Amendment. However, the court left open the possibility of some reasonable limits, which have been put in place by 40 other states.
“Since time immemorial society has respected the dignity and sacredness of putting the dead to rest,” Lieu said.
The Westboro Baptist Church congregation uses the protests to attract attention to their message., Frequently they parade with signs blaming homosexuality for the death of the soldier and claiming the tragedy was God’s revenge on the U.S. for tolerating homosexuality.
Lieu continues to discuss the limits with Brown’s advisers to strike a compromise and avoid a veto.
The legislation now goes to the Assembly Judiciary Committee. A hearing date has not been set.