SEARSPORT, Maine — Hundreds of people clutched tiny American flags Wednesday night as they listened to high school student Zach Parker’s presentation in the Searsport District Middle School gymnasium about his http://www.bangordailynews.com/story/Midcoast/Teens-bill-to-ban-protesters-from-funerals-gets-attention-from-controversial-church,162479proposed legislation to ban protests at military funerals.
But one group was conspicuously absent — members of the Westboro Baptist Church, the small and controversial congregation from Kansas that has made a name for itself by picketing soldiers’ funerals around the country.
A member of the church stated two weeks ago that the congregation intended to picket Parker’s presentation and added that the proposed legislation acts against First Amendment rights to free speech.
Parker, 17, told the crowd of more than 300 people that his efforts, in fact, weren’t limited to the Westboro Baptist Church — but definitely were inspired by veterans.
“This is not about me. This is about the people who sacrificed their lives to serve this country,” he said. “I’m going to fight the fight and see what we can get accomplished.”
The proposed legislation, which Parker has titled the “Respect for Fallen Heroes and Citizens Act of 2010,” started out as a history class project but has taken on a life of its own.
Last week, he was chauffeured to Boston to appear on the morning show “Fox & Friends” by video link to discuss his idea, and right after Wednesday’s presentation he was set to be chauffeured there again for the Thursday morning show. He has received e-mails from around the country and even from a former member of the Westboro Baptist Church who was in favor of the legislation, he said.
The Searsport event began a little like a patriotic pep rally and included a prayer to honor all veterans, a rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and a video featuring footage of dusty Middle East war zones.
Many of the people in attendance said that Parker’s goal of keeping funerals free of people who would taunt, insult or annoy mourning family and friends sounded just about right to them.
“The First Amendment is not an absolute,” said Charliy Michaud of Searsport. “There’s a certain level of common sense. I think it’s a wonderful idea, and I hope it works.”
Danny Bowden of Bangor came down with several other members of The Exiles, a Maine-based motorcycle group.
“I wanted to support this kid and this bill, because it’s not right to protest at any funeral, really, and especially our military funerals,” he said.
Parker asked for public comment on his proposed legislation and heard from several people who were not sure about the bill’s details.
“No person shall protest including taunting, or showing any public display of disapproval one clock hour from the beginning and end of a funeral, burial or memorial service, and may not enter within three-hundred feet of the grounds,” the legislation reads.
One man asked Parker if he would revise his bill so it was grounded in the U.S. Constitution. A retired Navy veteran questioned why the teen is singling out “heroes” and military veterans. Another wasn’t sure if 300 feet was enough.
“If people suggest a mile, we can do that,” Parker responded. “We need to protect the family’s rights. We also have to protect the right to protest.”
Representatives from the offices of Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe and Rep. Mike Michaud also read statements about the proposal. The U.S. Supreme Court has heard arguments against the Westboro Baptist Church and is expected to rule on the issue this year.
“I believe family members and friends should be able to mourn in privacy and without harassment,” Collins wrote.
After the presentation, Parker called all veterans forward to stand in an impromptu receiving line. He and others walked the line, shaking hands and thanking the veterans, who ranged in age from folks in their 20s to those who served during the 1950s and perhaps even earlier.
Merle Auclair of Winthrop, who served in the U.S. Army from 1952 to 1964, said that he doesn’t often see such a young person express respect for veterans.
“It’s rare. I’m glad to see it,” he said.
The line of veterans struck a nerve for Donald Gallant of Frankfort, who himself served in the military — and also has been Parker’s school bus driver since the second grade.
“They’ve got their freedom of speech to protest,” he said.
Then Gallant looked at the long line of men and women who had served in the armed forces and tears suddenly welled in his eyes.
“But these guys gave it to them,” he said.
For information about Parker’s proposed legislation, visit http://respectingthefallen.blogspot.com/.