Florida legislators have filed several bills that would limit funeral protests as a way of inhibiting the activities of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church group, known for protesting the funerals of military personnel.
Florida Representative Pat Rooney introduced the legislation in the House, known as HB31; an identical bill was introduced in the state Senate.
“While they did not aim it specifically at the soldier, their intent was to disturb those who are grieving to espouse a personal message,” said Rooney in an interview with The Christian Post. “In response, many local groups and individual citizens often showed up with the idea to separate those protesting from those grieving.”
Rooney added, “Although it has not happened yet, the potential for violence to erupt is very real.
The Florida state congressman said he considered the bill in part out of “a concern for the public safety.”
Although many see the bill as a way of giving grieving families peace in their time of mourning, others see it as a clear violation of principles guaranteed by the Constitution.
Florida State Representative John Julien voted against the state Senate version of the bill in committee, telling The Christian Post that it went against freedom of speech.
“While protesting a funeral may be morally reprehensible to me and others, I still believe that is a right protected by the Constitution,” said Julien.
Regarding concerns about freedom of speech and assembly, Rooney explained that the language of the bill will inhibit any violations.
“Recently the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Snyder v. Phelps that while states cannot prevent protests intended to disturb the peace, they are allowed to dictate a time and location,” said Rooney.
“As such, the language used falls within this realm and does not state people are not allowed to assemble, simply they must do so at a reasonable distance in the name of public safety.”
Derek Newton, communications director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, said the bill is still “fluid.”
“It was substantially amended this week and has several more committee hearings and debate at which additional changes are possible,” said Newton.
Newton stressed that because the bill could be changed considerably through amending, the ACLU does not currently have an official position.
“The ACLU of Florida believes no bereaved family should be subjected to hurtful, misguided, or contemptuous protests at their loved one’s funeral,” said Newton.
“We also clearly oppose government restrictions on the free exercise of speech – including forms of protest.”
In March, Westboro Baptist Church won a Supreme Court appeal against a father who sued them for protesting at his son’s funeral.
In the case, known as Snyder v. Phelps, the Court ruled 8-1 that WBC had a right to demonstrate at funerals. Justice Samuel Alito was the lone dissenting vote.
Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts argued that the law had to protect “even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate.”
HB31 passed the Criminal Justice Subcommittee in an 11 to 3 vote and is waiting to be heard in the Judiciary Committee.
If enacted, Florida would not be the only state with such restrictions. Indiana, Illinois and Arizona have laws of a similar nature.