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Lieu Bill Restricting Funeral Protests Passes Senate, Again

SB661, which would make it a misdemeanor to demonstrate at a funeral unless protesters were 500 feet away and on public property, passes the state Senate unanimously. It is similar to a bill vetoed last year by Gov. Jerry Brown.

A bill sponsored by state Sen. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance) that would make it a misdemeanor to target a funeral for protests – similar to one that Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed last year – passed the state Senate on Thursday in a unanimous 38-0 vote.

Lieu, an Air Force veteran who also earned a law degree from Georgetown University, brought the bill back with revisions that he said will comply with a 2011 U.S. Supreme Court decision that protected protesters at military funerals. Brown in his veto message that said he "cannot in good faith sign this measure because it plainly fails to comport with the Supreme Court's decision."

Lieu's state Senate 28th District includes Venice, Marina del Rey, Playa del Rey, Mar Vista, Hermosa Beach, Manhattan Beach, Redondo Beach and other areas.

Funerals became the target of picketing in 1998 when Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas focused protests on individuals who members believed to be homosexual. In 2005, church members started protesting at the funerals of soldiers killed in the Iraq War and in 2006 picketed at the funeral of U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, who died in Iraq.

Church members have extreme views against homosexuality and have picketed military funerals to protest what they see as the nation's tolerance of homosexuality. Church members displayed signs that said "Thank God for dead soldiers" and "Fag troops" at Snyder's funeral.

His father, Albert Snyder of Maryland, filed a civil suit against Westboro Baptist Church and initially won $5 million in damages in federal court, but the award was overturned by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, which found the lower court's judgment violated the First Amendment's protections on religious expression. The U.S. Supreme Court in March 2011 ruled 8-1 in favor of Westboro Baptist Church and ordered Snyder to pay the church's court costs.

The Supreme Court noted in Phelps v. Snyder that the church members held their protest on public land, were more than 1,000 feet away from the funeral and the demonstrators were not unruly or loud. Many states have laws banning the activity in the Snyder case, but that was not an issue in Kansas and the court did not address whether they are constitutional.

“Since time immemorial, society has respected the dignity and sacredness of putting the dead to rest,” Lieu said Thursday in a statement. “This bill recognizes the sanctity of funerals by placing reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions on disruptive protestors."

Lieu's Senate Bill 661 would make it unlawful for anyone to protest a funeral unless they are at least 500 feet away and on public property. Protesters also could not disrupt actual funeral services.

The bill is nearly identical to the one that was vetoed last year, but this year's version cuts the buffer zone to 500 feet instead of 1,000 feet.

The American Civil Liberties Union has stated its opposition to last year's bill and this year's revision. In documents submitted with the bill's analysis, the civil liberties group said the "500-foot buffer zone goes far beyond what is necessary."

The group compared the restrictions to those placed on anti-abortion protesters at medical clinics.

"In cases involving anti-abortion protesters at medical clinics, the Supreme Court has acknowledged the vulnerable emotional and physical state of clinic patients, but it has never approved a free speech buffer zone greater than 100 feet," the ACLU's statement said.

The group further said the 500-foot buffer goes "far beyond" buffer zones enacted by other states in response to funeral protests by the Westboro Baptist Church. Court challenges have not been uniform, the statement said, but "a number of courts have struck down even a 300-foot funeral protest buffer zone as far too large when directed at speech, and no court has approved a buffer zone in excess of 300 feet."

Under the proposed bill, violators of the misdemanor crime would face up to six months in jail and a fine of $1,000 for targeting a funeral during the period one hour before it begins and ending one hour after its conclusion.

SB 661 is supported by the American Legion, AMVets, Vietnam Veterans of America, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, the Riverside Sheriffs’ Association and the L.A. County Probation Officers Union.

SB661 now goes to the state Assembly for consideration.

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