Two of America’s fundamental beliefs collide in the case of the hateful protests at military funerals. Many are abhorred by the protesters from Westboro Baptist Church holding signs with sayings such as “God hates fags” and “Thank God for dead soldiers.” As offensive as these displays are, they are protected by the Constitution’s First Amendment right to freedom of speech, which the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed in a ruling last month.
Sen. Olympia Snowe and a bipartisan group of senators have introduced a bill to better protect military families. This is a worthy compromise, but opponents of the Kansas church and its message must remember that no grieving family can be completely shielded from its displays.
The bill, the Sanctity of Eternal Rest for Veterans, or “SERVE” Act, would increase the quiet time before and after military funeral services from 60 minutes to 120 minutes; increase from 150 feet to 300 feet the buffer around a military funeral service and increase from 300 feet to 500 feet the buffer around access routes to a funeral service area. It would also increase civil penalties on violators.
“Those who fight and die in the service of our country deserve our highest respect. Their families have earned the right to bury their loved ones in peace,” Sen. Snowe said in a statement announcing the legislation. “The SERVE Act strikes a balance between the sanctity of a funeral service and the right to free speech.”
In March, the Supreme Court ruled 8-1 that protesters have the legal right to stage demonstrations at U.S. military funerals. The case, Snyder v. Phelps, involved a military family and the controversial Westboro Baptist Church, which has used military funerals as a platform to promote its claim that God is angered by the country’s tolerance of homosexuality.
The court’s ruling, according to the senators, shows the need for more definitive language in federal law guiding when and where disruptions at military funerals can take place, while still respecting the ability of a family to lay a lost loved one to rest.
The inspiration for the bill came from Zach Parker, a student as Searsport High School. Through his website, respectingthefallen.org, and national television appearances, the teen has been promoting legislation to protect military families from funeral protests.
The court reiterated that the Constitution does not differentiate between speech we like and speech we despise. Lawmakers and others must proceed with caution in making such distinctions.