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Pioneer editorial: Legislating respect now a state role

There perhaps is no more somber a moment than when a community pays its last respects to one of its members who has died. It is especially traumatic for that person's family, as grief rises to the top and emotions run high.

It's not the time to be disruptive, or to make a political point, or to be just plan disrespectful. A funeral or memorial service is a private moment which the family wishes to share with their deceased family member's friends and the community at large.

It's almost unfathomable that someone or some group would use a funeral to be disruptive and to wage a political grandstand, but that's what happened last week and that's why Minnesota lawmakers are in hurry to pass legislation to bar such activity in the future.

While there are many questions about how far legislators should go -- since the U.S. Constitution gives Americans the right of free speech -- there should be no question that a line should not be crossed.

The cause of this flurry of activity -- a House panel approved a bill on Wednesday, the opening day of the 2006 session -- arises from a funeral held in Anoka last week for a soldier killed in action in Iraq. Six people from the nondenominational Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., protested outside the funeral, making the point that God is killing our soldiers in Iraq because America supports homosexuality. The debacle caused the dead soldier's mother to confront the group, calling it hateful. That's something a mother should never have to do at her son's funeral.

The House Governmental Operations and Veterans Affairs Policy Committee on Wednesday approved a bill by Rep. Marty Seifert, R-Marshall, which prohibits the willful and knowing dis-ruption of a funeral, burial or memorial service, defining disruption as protest-ing or picketing on the day of and within 300 feet of the service, proces-sion and the homes of the deceased or deceased's immediate family.

Other bills have also been introduced, including Rep. Frank Moe, DFL-Bemidji, who would simply make it unlawful to willfully disrupt a funeral service in any manner, or Rep. Steve Smith, R-Mound, who would extend the no-protest zone to 1,000 feet, and an hour before to an hour after the funeral service.

It is sad to have to legislate something like this, but there are times when a family's right to grief must supersede the right to free speech. It's also against the law to yell "fire" in a crowded theater, because there are some people would find a thrill in doing so.

The beauty of this nation is that anyone can put up a soapbox on a street corner and preach whatever message they want. But a grieving family needs to be left alone. It's neither the time nor the place to be making political statements.