States Look to Guarantee Civility at Military Funerals

25 states considering creating, expanding buffer zones around military funerals.

June 4, 2011— -- Ryan Ripp, a sophomore at McNary High School in Keizer, Ore., got angry after seeing a TV news report about members of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka picketing a military funeral earlier this year.

"I was just infuriated. I could not understand why people would want to protest at funerals," he said.

Ripp, 16, who has relatives who are veterans and says he plans on enlisting in the Marine Corps, asked Oregon state Rep. Kim Thatcher to introduce the legislation to try to protect military funerals from disruption.

Thatcher, a Republican, agreed, and Ripp researched what other states were doing, visited other lawmakers to drum up bipartisan sponsors, and testified in support of the bill in March.

"I told them how it impacted families and how it was absolutely constitutional for them to be able to limit time, place and manner. It doesn't limit free speech at all," he said.

Oregon is among 25 states this year to consider ways to shield military funerals from outside groups by creating or expanding buffer zones around military funerals.

The effort follows a Supreme Court decision in March striking down a lawsuit against the Westboro Baptist Church, which pickets the funerals of U.S. servicemembers, as part of its claim that God is punishing the United States for supporting homosexuality.

The court ruled that such protests are protected speech under the First Amendment, but states hope to get around that by creating protest-free buffer zones, or reserved areas, around funerals and routes to funerals.

"They can protest away, but it doesn't have to be in everybody else's face," Thatcher said.

Laws Pending in 14 States

Arizona, Arkansas, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, West Virginia and Wyoming already have passed such laws this year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Laws are pending in 14 other states, including California, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Oregon and Texas. They have failed in Florida, Mississippi, Nevada and Utah.

Local jurisdictions in New York and Maryland also have proposed laws to protect military funerals.

Congress is also considering federal legislation. The Sanctity of Eternal Rest for Veterans (SERVE) Act would increase the quiet time before and after military funerals from 60 minutes to 120 minutes; increase the buffer around services from 150 feet to 300 feet; increase the buffer around access routes to services from 300 feet to 500 feet; and increase civil penalties.

The federal bill was introduced April 13 and referred to the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee. It is sponsored by Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, and has 25 Senate co-sponsors.

"We think it's a step in the right direction," said Peter Gaytan, executive director of the American Legion in Washington. "One day, hopefully, we can make it decidedly illegal to take advantage of these funerals to protest." Westboro Baptist Church members say they plan to challenge any new restrictions.

They already have suits pending in Oklahoma, Missouri, Ohio and Kentucky, said Fred Phelps Jr., a Kansas lawyer and son of the pastor heading the church.

"What they really want is for us to shut up. We're not going to do that," he said.

The Supreme Court, in its decision, suggested that such buffer zones would be constitutional, said First Amendment expert Steven Shiffrin, a law professor at Cornell University in New York.

Shiffrin said he has concerns.

"To me, this turns First Amendment values upside down. Someone could be carrying a sign praising the deceased or the courage of the family and that would be precluded," he said.

The laws also might be vulnerable because they are directed only at military funerals, rather than all funerals, Shiffrin said.

Oregon bill raises concern

The American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon objects to the state's bill, legislative director Andrea Meyer said.

The proposal violates the state's guarantee of free expression, which state courts have interpreted more broadly than the First Amendment, Meyer said.

"When you draft legislation targeting the particular speech of a particular party because you find that speech abhorrent, you run into real risks under the federal and state constitutions," she said.

Loew also reports for the Statesman Journal in Salem, Ore.