Friday, March 17, 2006

Minnesota Senate Passes Funeral-Protest Bill 58-1

With a lone dissenting vote from Sen. Becky Lourey, the Senate approved restrictions Thursday on funeral protests such as one that marred the burial of a fallen soldier last month in Anoka. The vote of 58 to 1 came a week after the House unanimously passed similar, but not identical, legislation. A conference committee will probably have to work out differences between the two bills. Lourey, DFL-Kerrick, a candidate for governor and the mother of a soldier killed in Iraq last year, said she opposes the bill as an infringement of the free-speech right her son died to protect. No protesters showed up for the burial of Army helicopter pilot Matthew Lourey last June at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, but the senator said even that would not have changed her mind. "If it had happened, I would have had to endure that," she said. "This is very emotional because the speech we're addressing is very ugly, but we can't repeal the Bill of Rights because of it." She suggested that a few changes in the state's disorderly conduct statute would suffice to protect funerals from improper disruption. In a news release from her gubernatorial campaign, Lourey added: "I will never compromise my convictions for political expediency. I will always stand for freedom. The hardest time to stand for freedom is in the face of overwhelming sentiment. ... We appear to be losing our ability to respect differences of opinion or have a civil dialogue. Legislating respectful behavior is not likely to help. In fact, more likely it will hurt." The issue surged to the top of the Legislature's agenda after protesters from a church in Topeka, Kan., noisily picketed the funeral of Army Cpl. Andrew Kemple Feb. 23 in Anoka. They contend that God is killing U.S. soldiers in Iraq because of the nation's tolerance of homosexuality. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Don Betzold, DFL-Fridley, would make intentional disruption of a funeral or memorial service, procession or burial a misdemeanor punishable by up to 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine. Repeat offenses could bring gross misdemeanor penalties of up to a year in jail and a $3,000 fine. Protesters would also be barred from picketing the home of the deceased's family or household on the day of the funeral. In addition, violators of any provisions of the bill could be sued for damages by the survivors. "It does not prohibit all forms of protest," Betzold said. "I don't know that we could do that. It does prohibit the behavior that most people would find offensive." A House bill sponsored by Rep. Steve Smith, R-Mound, would impose similar restrictions, plus a clause to keep protesters 1,000 feet from mourners. Some legislators have said the distance limit would make the measure vulnerable to a court challenge. "It probably will be challenged anyway," said Sen. Thomas Neuville, R-Northfield. "But it's important that we focus on protesters' conduct, not the content of their speech." The only serious debate on the bill came when the Senate's two openly gay members, Sens. Paul Koering, R-Fort Ripley, and Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, proposed increasing some of the penalties to the felony level. "It's important to send a strong message that we're not going to tolerate this," Koering said. "I feel very passionate about this. This is a serious, serious, serious matter."