Lawmaker proposes bill to ban protests at military funerals
WASHINGTON — A Michigan congressman will introduce federal legislation to block protests during military funeral services in response to a Kansas church’s continued demonstrations at servicemembers’ burials.
Rep. Mike Rogers said he won’t officially submit the bill until later this month, but colleagues in Congress have already scheduled a hearing in early April and pledged their support for the measure.
The proposal would prohibit protests an hour before or after a funeral at any national cemetery, and force protesters back at least 500 feet from the grieving family. Penalties for violations still need to be worked out.
“When you go to a funeral, it’s difficult enough to show up and pay your respects to someone who died for their country without getting jeered, taunted and harassed,” said Rogers, a Republican. “There’s a difference between free speech and hateful, harassing speech.”
On Thursday, Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., introduced similar legislation in the Senate, creating a 300-foot buffer zone and making violations punishable by up to five years in prison. Bayh’s bill would apply to “all funerals for soldiers who were killed in active duty service.”
Rogers began crafting the legislation after attending a funeral last week picketed by the Westboro Baptist Church, whose members have been demonstrating at military funerals across America.
The group insists that troops are being killed to punish the United States for embracing a pro-gay agenda, and usually wave signs with slogans such as “Thank God for IEDs” as mourners approach.
Rogers, a former Army officer whose brother has served as a soldier in both Iraq and Afghanistan, said even though he knew the group was coming he was incensed when he saw their protest.
“It was worse than awful,” he said. “It was darn close to being criminal.”
But Shirley Phelps-Roper, daughter of the Westboro group’s founder, said the effort to block their protests is anti-American, since their demonstrations “are exactly what the framers of the Constitution had in mind.” She promised a legal challenge if the bill becomes law.
“It’s so fitting that this nation, before the eyes of the world, is prepared to give away the freedoms it wants to spread to other countries,” she said. “We are witnessing the suicide of a once-great nation.”
Rogers said his measure was carefully crafted to withstand such a legal challenge, and he hopes it can serve as a model for states which have not passed protest laws yet. Currently five states — South Dakota, Kansas, Oklahoma, Indiana and Kentucky — have already passed similar bills.
Phelps-Roper said her group has stopped protesting in those states because “those states needed a cooling-off period” but predicted their challenge to the federal bill would overturn all of the state statutes.
The group is scheduled to protest Rogers and “our Barney Frank Congress” in Washington next week. Lawmakers adjourned for a holiday break Thursday night, and won’t return to the city until March 27.