On March 7 the Montana House of Representatives passed a bill by Great Falls Sen. Joe Tropila that would make it illegal to protest at funerals.
The ban is a reaction to demonstrations at military funerals by members of the Topeka, Kan.-based Westboro Baptist Church. Carrying signs with slogans such as “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” the Westboro protesters believe God is killing U.S. soldiers as punishment for America’s tolerance of homosexuality. In August a group of protesters picketed the funeral of Marine Cpl. Phillip E. Baucus, the 28-year-old nephew of Sen. Max Baucus, who was killed in Iraq.
And while at least 30 other states have similar laws on the books, Montana’s version might have unintended consequences.
In 2006 Kentucky passed a law forbidding protests within 300 feet of military funerals and memorial services. Bart McQueary, a member of the Westboro Baptist Church challenged the law in federal court, alleging it violated his right to free speech. Judge Karen Caldwell agreed, noting the ban could restrict the free speech rights of people nearby, even if they cannot be seen or heard by people participating in the funeral proceedings. Caldwell found that the 300-foot zone imposed by the Kentucky ban “is large enough that it would restrict communications intended for the general public on a matter completely unrelated to the funeral…”
The Montana ban calls for a 1,500-foot protest-free zone starting an hour before a service and ending an hour after.
“These restrictions are just too broad,” says Scott Crichton, executive director of the Montana American Civil Liberties Union.
Crichton says there are ways to deal with obnoxious protesters, but restricting their right to free speech isn’t a good one.
“By making their protest illegal, you elevate them to the front page, which is exactly what they want,” Crichton warns.
The bill, which easily passed the Senate, moves on to the desk of Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who must sign it for it to become law. A spokesperson for Schweitzer indicated the governor is “inclined” to sign the measure.