JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) - The Missouri House gave first-round approval Tuesday to new restrictions for protesting at funerals after the state's previous ban was ruled unconstitutional.
Under the legislation, it would be a misdemeanor to protest within 500 feet of a cemetery, mortuary, church or other house of worship from two hours before a funeral to two hours after the ceremony. Violators would face up to six months in jail.
The legislation also would make it easier for people to file lawsuits for the infliction of emotional distress against protesters who violate the new restrictions.
Rep. Ward Franz, who is sponsoring the measure, said Missourians should be allowed to mourn the death of loved ones without the interference of protesters. He said free speech rights are important but said that they already can be restricted in some cases, such as yelling "fire" in a theater.
"The right to swing my fist ends where your nose begins," said Franz, R-West Plains.
Like the previous funeral protesting restrictions, Missouri lawmakers are targeting members of the Topeka, Kan.-based Westboro Baptist Church, who hold funeral demonstrations across the country while contending that the deaths are God's punishment for the nation's tolerance of homosexuality. Many of the protests have been at funerals for members of the military.
The funeral protest legislation needs another vote in the House before it moves to the Senate.
Missouri lawmakers in 2006 approved a law that banned picketing and protests in front of or near a funeral from one hour before to one hour after the service. Because of concerns about legal challenges, legislators also passed another law to create a 300-foot buffer zone between funerals and demonstrations that was designed to take effect if the primary law was declared unconstitutional. Both included a ban on picketing near funeral processions.
U.S. District Judge Fernando Gaitan last August declared the 2006 laws to be unconstitutional. Gaitan wrote that he was sympathetic to the argument that people attending a funeral deserve some protection but noted a federal appeals court previously had rejected that argument. Gaitan concluded that Missouri had not demonstrated that the protest restrictions served a significant government interest and that they were narrowly tailored.
Critics of the most recent House legislation raised similar concerns Tuesday. They said the proposed restrictions went too far in limiting free speech rights and predicted that the measure was likely to be ruled unconstitutional if it were to pass.
"As awful as this speech is, we have to protect free speech," said Rep. Susan Carlson, D-St. Louis.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri, which has represented Westboro Baptist Church in several challenges to funeral protest restrictions, also has raised concerns about the constitutionality of the Missouri legislation.
The ACLU said ordinances restricting funeral protests have been repealed in about a dozen Missouri communities after the threat of a legal challenge. In nearly a dozen more communities, measures restricting funeral protests were repealed after a lawsuit was filed. And in several others, the courts have issued an injunction for the protest restrictions.
Funeral protests is HB276