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Archive for Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Committee endorses funeral picketing bill

February 22, 2006

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— Picketing and protesting at funerals would be restricted under a bill reworked by a Senate committee to overcome concerns about encroaching on freedom of speech.

The Senate Federal and State Affairs Committee on a voice vote Tuesday endorsed the bill, sending it to the full chamber for debate. The measure was prompted by recent protests by the Rev. Fred Phelps Sr. and members of his independent Westboro Baptist Church at funerals of U.S. troops killed in combat.

Phelps and his followers contend the deaths are God's vengeance for the U.S. harboring homosexuals. For years, he protested funerals of AIDS victims but has shifted to soldiers.

The bill bans picketing and protest marches within 300 feet of a funeral service one hour before, during and two hours after the service. Violations would be a misdemeanor. State law now says only that it's illegal to picket "before or about" a funeral service.

Kansas is among at least 14 states pushing similar legislation to curtail the activity.

Last week, the committee heard from Stephen McAllister, University of Kansas Law School professor and constitutional scholar, who cautioned that a 300-foot buffer zone in most instances would extend to streets and sidewalks, which courts consider public forum areas.

"His comments made us realize the minefield we are in with free speech," Chairman Pete Brungardt said.

As a result, the committee exempted from the 300-foot buffer zone streets, sidewalks and other public spaces. Brungardt, R-Salina, said that would keep protesters off private property, including where the funeral was being conducted.

"I have a real problem with limiting freedom of speech, as vile as it might be," said Sen. Dennis Wilson, R-Overland Park.

The committee added language making it a violation if protesters "obstruct or prevent the intended use" of a public area while engaged in picketing or protesting.

A proposal to make it illegal for protesters to engage in any behavior "that tends to disquiet, obstruct of denigrate a funeral" was struck, because members considered it too vague to be enforceable.

"These are all subjective words, subject to interpretation," said Sen. John Vratil, R-Leawood. "It just makes the proposition more iffy. I don't want the state writing a check to Fred Phelps."

Brungardt said if protesters get too noisy or disruptive, local ordinances dealing the disturbing the peace could come into play.

When the committee heard testimony on the bill on Feb. 1, Phelps testified against it and threatened legal action if it became law.

"We can't be lawfully moved out of sight of our target audience," Phelps warned the committee.

He also said the bill violates First Amendment rights and targets his church's religious beliefs.

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