Neb. bill would increase distance between funerals, protests

Friday, January 14, 2011

A bill introduced in the Nebraska House of Representatives would amend the state’s funeral-picketing law to increase the distance imposed upon would-be protesters — such as the Westboro Baptist Church.

Nebraska state senator Bob Krist introduced Legislative Bill 284 on Jan. 12. It would require protesters to stay 500 feet away from a funeral instead of the current 300 feet.

If thus amended, the law would read: “Picketing of a funeral means protest activities engaged in by a person or persons located within five hundred (500) feet of a cemetery, mortuary, church, or other place of worship during a funeral.”

State funeral-protest laws vary in distance requirements they impose. Delaware (300 feet from buildings but 1,000 feet from processions), Kentucky, New Hampshire, North Carolina and Wyoming are examples of states with 300-foot rules. But several other states have 500-foot minimum distances, including Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Tennessee.

Federal courts are divided on the constitutionality of funeral-protest laws. The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals invalidated a Missouri law, but the 6th Circuit upheld an Ohio law. The U.S. Supreme Court has before it a different type of funeral-protest case — Snyder v. Phelps, which doesn’t involve a challenge to a funeral-protest law, but rather a tort suit filed by the father of a deceased soldier against Westboro members.

Legislation increasing the distance requirements in funeral-protest laws is politically popular. The Westboro church has few supporters, as most find it despicable to protest at funerals. However, the question of whether such funeral-protest laws are constitutional is unsettled.