Military Funeral Protesters Restricted

Congress has passed a law placing restrictions on protests at military funerals. One presumes President Bush will eagerly sign it.

Veteran Funeral Protest Signs Demonstrators would be barred from disrupting military funerals at national cemeteries under legislation approved by Congress and sent to the White House Wednesday. The measure, passed by voice vote in the House hours after the Senate passed an amended version, specifically targets a Kansas church group that has staged protests at military funerals around the country, claiming that the deaths were a sign of God’s anger at U.S. tolerance of homosexuals.

The act “will protect the sanctity of all 122 of our national cemeteries as shrines to their gallant dead,” Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said prior to the Senate vote. “It’s a sad but necessary measure to protect what should be recognized by all reasonable people as a solemn, private and deeply sacred occasion,” he said.

Under the Senate bill, approved without objection by the House with no recorded vote, the “Respect for America’s Fallen Heroes Act” would bar protests within 300 feet of the entrance of a cemetery and within 150 feet of a road into the cemetery from 60 minutes before to 60 minutes after a funeral. Those violating the act would face up to a $100,000 fine and up to a year in prison. The sponsor of the House bill, Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., said he took up the issue after attending a military funeral in his home state, where mourners were greeted by “chants and taunting and some of the most vile things I have ever heard.” “Families deserve the time to bury their American heroes with dignity and in peace,” Rogers said Wednesday before the Hosue vote.

The demonstrators are led by the Rev. Fred Phelps of Topeka, Kan., who has previously organized protests against those who died of AIDS and gay murder victim Matthew Shepard. In an interview when the House bill passed, Phelps said Congress was “blatantly violating the First Amendment” rights to free speech in passing the bill. He said that if the bill becomes law he will continue to demonstrate but would abide by the restrictions.

Certainly, this does not violate the 1st Amendment. It places very minor time, place, and manner restrictions on speech while balancing other important societal interests. The courts have recognized the need for such balancing since the earliest days of our Republic.

Related: States Banning Picketing at Soldiers’ Funerals

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Bithead says:

    Full on agreement, James

  2. LJD says:

    Prohibits a person from carrying out a demonstration: (1) …unless the demonstration has been approved by the cemetery superintendent or director; or (2)…if such demonstration includes any individual making noise or a diversion that disturbs the peace or good order of the funeral or service.

    So it sounds like an individual could ‘demonstrate’ by their presence, with permission, if they were to sit quietly and not interrupt the ceremony. Seems generous to me.

    The bill also encourages states to enact their own similar legislation.

  3. legion says:

    Hmmm… I’m not getting a clear read from the article. The headline talks about military funerals, but it appears the bill just restricts protests at “national cemeteries”… I hope Congress was very careful when they worded this (that’d be a first!). If it specifies barring protests just at “military funerals” then it very likely does violate the constitution, but if it just bars protests at the cemetary in general it should be ok…

    Anything that keeps Fred Phelps’ crowd farther away from polite society is a Good Thing…