Ind. enacts funeral-protest law

Friday, March 3, 2006

INDIANAPOLIS — Gov. Mitch Daniels signed a bill into law yesterday that makes disorderly conduct within 500 feet of a funeral a felony offense — putting Indiana among the first states to enact a law in response to a Kansas-based group that protests military funerals.

Lawmakers and Daniels wanted to enact the new law ahead of a possible protest at a funeral March 6 in Kokomo for Army Sgt. Rickey Jones, who was killed last week in Iraq.

“That family’s gone through enough already,” said Republican Sen. Brent Steele of Bedford, the bill’s sponsor. “It’s nice to see it’s in effect right now.”

Daniels’ action came less than two hours after the state Senate voted 48-1 to give final legislative approval to the bill. Daniels had said he wanted to sign the bill as soon as possible.

“Indiana respects the First Amendment, even for the most despicable forms of speech,” Daniels said earlier this week. “But equally, we’re determined to protect the bereavement and honor the sacrifices of those who’ve done the most important public service at all. That bill’s not going to reach my desk — I’m going to sign it at the front door.”

Senators applauded when Lt. Gov. Becky Skillman announced the bill signing. Steele thanked legislative leaders for putting the bill on a fast track.

“I have heard from thousands of Hoosiers on this issue and they almost unanimously feel this is the right thing to do for the families of our fallen heroes and the funerals of all Hoosiers,” Steele said.

Steele proposed the new law after a protest by members of Westboro Baptist Church at an August funeral in Martinsville for a soldier killed in Iraq, during which the marchers dragged U.S. flags on the ground and shouted insults at soldier’s family members.

Small groups from the Topeka, Kan., congregation, which is made up largely of the founder’s family members, have since protested at other funerals for servicemen in Indiana and have done so in several other states, claiming that soldiers are dying in Iraq because the United States harbors homosexuals.

Disorderly conduct within 500 feet of a funeral, burial, funeral procession or viewing in Indiana is now a felony offense punishable by six months to three years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

At least a dozen other states, including Illinois and Ohio, are considering similar measures. Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle has already signed legislation banning protests at funerals.

Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry signed a bill today making it a misdemeanor to picket within 500 feet of a cemetery, mortuary or church from one hour before a funeral service until one hour afterward.

The Oklahoma House hurriedly passed the bill yesterday and sent it to Henry in a bid to prevent picketing by members of Westboro Baptist Church at the upcoming funeral of an Oklahoma soldier killed in Iraq.

The measure went into effect immediately upon Henry’s signature.

The funeral of 21-year-old Joshua Pearce, who was killed on Feb. 26 when his Army vehicle struck an explosive device near Baghdad, is tentatively scheduled for March 6 in the Oklahoma Panhandle city of Guymon, said Rep. Gus Blackwell, R-Goodwell.

Members of the Oklahoma House suspended their rules to bring the Senate-passed funeral-protest bill directly to the House floor for a vote and passed it without opposition. Under the measure, convictions are punishable by a fine of up to $500, a 30-day jail sentence or both. In addition, a district court can award damages, including punitive damages, against those convicted of protesting at a funeral.

The Westboro Baptist Church has vowed to challenge funeral restrictions in court, saying they violate free-speech rights and target a church’s religious beliefs.

Constitutional scholars say if the laws are challenged, the courts likely will look to rulings on laws governing abortion protests. The question could be whether a church, funeral home or cemetery is considered a private or public location during a ceremony.

Members of the Kansas church, meanwhile, have vowed to picket the weekend funeral of a Missouri soldier, setting up the first direct challenge of a state’s funeral-protest ban.

Army Pfc. Christopher L. Marion, killed last week by a roadside bomb in Iraq, will be buried tomorrow in Anderson, Mo.

The Missouri law bans picketing and protests “in front of or about” any church, cemetery or funeral establishment from one hour before a funeral until one hour after it ends.

“The Supreme Court says ‘before’ or ‘about’ means ‘directly in front,’” said Shirley Phelps-Roper, the daughter of the church’s founder, the Rev. Fred Phelps. “We’ll be across the street or down the street. We’ll keep a respectful distance and put our signs in the air.”

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