California Governor signs bill restricting picketing at funerals

Christian Examiner staff report

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Funeral protesters in California will have to stay at least 300 feet away from all burial or memorial sites thanks to a bill signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown.

The bill was drafted in response to ongoing picketing of military funerals nationwide by members of the Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church, which believes soldier combat deaths are God’s punishment for America’s pro-homosexual public policy.

Last year, Brown vetoed a similar measure that required protesters to stay at least 1,000-feet away from the funerals, saying he did not believe it complied with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling earlier in the year.

“(I was) very tempted to sign it,” Brown said at the time.

The nation’s high court, in an 8-1 vote, upheld the church group’s right to protest in March 2011 after the family of Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder filed suit against Westboro Baptist after protesters targeted his Maryland funeral. In its decision, Supreme Court Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority, said upsetting or contemptuous speech does not justify such stringent regulation.

“Westboro’s funeral picketing is certainly hurtful, and its contribution to public discourse may be negligible,” Roberts wrote. “But Westboro addressed matters of public import on public property, in a peaceful manner, in full compliance with the guidance of local officials. The speech was indeed planned to coincide with Matthew Snyder’s funeral but did not itself disrupt that funeral, and Westboro’s choice to conduct its picketing at that time and place did not alter the nature of its speech.”

Roberts then reiterated the foundational right to speech.

“Speech is powerful,” the justice said. “It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and—as it did here—inflict great pain. On the facts before us, we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker.”

Responding to Brown’s concerns about possible violations of the federal ruling, state Sen. Ted Lieu, D-Torrance, later modified his bill before reintroducing it earlier this year as Senate Bill 661. The new proposal, passed Sept. 17, reduced the buffer zone from 1,000 feet to 300 feet.

“Since time immemorial, society has respected the dignity and sacredness of putting the dead to rest,” Lieu said in a statement. “This bill recognizes the sanctity of funerals by placing reasonable time, place and manner restrictions on disruptive protestors.”

The law initiates the distance restrictions beginning one hour before and one hour after funerals. Violations include a fine of up to $1,000, imprisonment in a county jail for as long as six months, or both.

Westboro Baptist is known for its brightly colored signs, which are tailored to various protest targets, including Jews and homosexuals. Those frequently used for the military funeral protests include “God Hates Fags,” “Pray For More Dead Soldiers,” “You’re Going to Hell,” and “Thank God for IEDs.”

Church leaders from across the country have denounced Westboro for its actions, including Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission who labeled the work of church leader Fred Phelps and his followers “verbal terrorism.”

“Fred Phelps and his followers' grotesque assault on these bereft family members is nothing less than verbal pornography and obscenity,” he said. “It is not, and should not be, protected under the First Amendment. For this group of misguided zealots to do their despicable deeds in the name of God is blasphemous.”

Published September 27, 2012
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