State Measure Would Restrict Funeral Protests

A bill sponsored by state Sen. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance) that would make it a misdemeanor to target a funeral for protests passed the state Senate on Wednesday in a 36-1 bipartisan vote.

Lieu, an Air Force veteran who also earned a law degree from Georgetown University, crafted the bill in response to a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that protected protesters at military funerals. Lieu’s state Senate 28th District includes Manhattan Beach, Hermosa Beach, Redondo Beach, Marina del Rey, Venice, Mar Vista and other areas.

“We’ve all seen hateful protests at military funerals,” Lieu said in a statement. “I accept the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court has the power to render stupid decisions, but protesters should not be able to disrupt actual funeral services.”

Senate Bill 888 would make it illegal for anyone to protest at a funeral unless they are at least 1,000 feet away and on public property. Also, demonstrators would not be able to engage in picketing at a funeral for the period starting one hour before the funeral through one hour after its conclusion.

Funerals became the target of picketing in 1998 when members of Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas focused protests on individuals they believed to be homosexual. In 2005, church members started protesting at the funerals of soldiers killed in the Iraq War and, in 2006, picketed at the funeral of U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, who died in Iraq.

Church members have expressed extreme views against homosexuality and have picketed military funerals to protest what they see as the nation’s tolerance of homosexuality. Church members displayed signs with the words “Thank God for dead soldiers” and “Fag troops” at Snyder’s funeral.

His father, Albert Snyder of Maryland, filed a civil suit against Westboro Baptist Church and initially won $5 million in damages in federal court, but the award was overturned by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, which found the lower court’s judgment violated the First Amendment’s protections on religious expression. The U.S. Supreme Court in March ruled 8-1 in favor of Westboro Baptist Church and ordered Snyder to pay the church’s court costs.

The Supreme Court noted in Phelps vs. Snyder that the church members held their protest on public land, were more than 1,000 feet away from the funeral and the demonstrators were not unruly or loud. Many states have laws banning the activity in the Snyder case, but that was not an issue in Kansas and the court did not address whether they are constitutional.

Lieu said in a statement that his bill is within the guidelines of the Supreme Court’s decision. If the bill becomes law, anyone found guilty of failing to comply could face a fine of as much as $1,000 and up to six months in county jail, or both.

The bill has been supported by the American Legion, AMVets, Vietnam Veterans of America, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, the Riverside Sheriffs’ Association and the L.A. County Probation Officers Union.

The American Civil Liberties Union has stated its opposition to the bill, arguing that it will create “super-sized no-speech zones with a 1,000-foot radius.” The ACLU noted that the buffer zones are larger than any zone upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. The civil liberties group said large no-speech zones could include public parks and plazas around cemeteries and churches that have been traditional public forums.

SB 888 now goes to the state Assembly for consideration.

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