House approves funeral protest ban
ST. PAUL -- A unanimous Minnesota House on Thursday banned funeral protests. "I am asking my colleagues to join me in walking through a minefield ... on behalf of soldiers who walked through and died in real minefields," Rep. Steve Smith, R-Mound...
ST. PAUL -- A unanimous Minnesota House on Thursday banned funeral protests.
"I am asking my colleagues to join me in walking through a minefield ... on behalf of soldiers who walked through and died in real minefields," Rep. Steve Smith, R-Mound, said before his colleagues voted 133-0 to keep protesters at least 1,000 feet away from funerals, funeral processions, burial ceremonies and related activities.
Smith said First Amendment free speech rights were the minefield he hoped to avoid. Even the House's strongest free-speech proponents rose during discussion on the bill to say that funeral protests are so objectionable that they should be stopped.
If the Senate follows the House, as expected, military funerals no longer will be the subject of a fringe Kansas church group. Leaders of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka say they will not protest in states that make it illegal.
About a dozen states have passed or are considering similar laws to the Minnesota bill.
The only glitch in passing the Minnesota bill came when Rep. Karen Clark, DFL-Minneapolis, said she feared that the language of the bill would not apply to gay partners.
"I mean this to exclude no one," Smith told her, convincing Clark to support the bill.
Rep. Frank Moe, DFL-Bemidji, had sponsored another funeral ban bill, but Smith and others said it was so broad that it would be found unconstitutional. Moe had wanted to ban all funeral protests anywhere, even if not near the funeral.
Smith's bill applies to all funerals, not only military ones, and applies an hour before to an hour after services. It also allows families to sue people or groups who violate the protest restriction.
"It allows a buffer that allows family and friends to express their grief ... without reading the foul words of a few," he said.
"This is not an issue about whether someone supports the war or not," Moe said. "But, soldiers, grieving families, and their communities deserve our honor and respect no matter what."
The issue became a hot one among lawmakers after six men and women from the nondenominational Kansas church protested last month outside an Anoka funeral of a soldier killed in Iraq. Church members have protested at military funerals around the country, saying God is killing soldiers because America supports homosexuality.
But Moe said he had prepared a bill even before that, when the problem of the Kansas church protests was brought to his attention by Daniel Gumphrey, a chaplain of several Bemidji and Cass Lake veterans organizations.
"Most people know that I support all our constitutional and civil rights. We've drafted this bill in a manner consistent with protecting those rights," Moe said.
Pioneer Political Editor Brad Swenson contributed to this story.