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FILE - In this June 6, 2009 file photo, protesters from Rev. Fred Phelps FILE - In this June 6, 2009 file photo, protesters from Rev. Fred Phelps' Westboro Baptist Church demonstrate during funeral services for Dr. George Tiller at College Hill United Methodist Church in Wichita, Kan. In an 8-1 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the group's protests were protected by the First Amendment. The father of a Marine killed in Iraq sued after they picketed his son's 2006 funeral service.(AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File)  

New ban on military funeral protests sparks First Amendment debate

President Obama signed a bill into law last week that places new restrictions on protests at military funerals, sparking a new debate on First Amendment rights.

The Sanctity of Eternal Rest for Veterans Act was born out of anger over military funeral protests carried out by the Westboro Baptist Church. The Kansas-based group is infamous for its protests of funerals for military members, police officers, victims of natural disasters and even children.

The small church is mostly made up of Pastor Fred Phelps and his family. They believe that God is killing Americans to punish our tolerance of homosexual. Westboro Baptist has been classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League.

Maine Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe introduced the ban on funeral protests a month after the Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment barred the father of Matthew Snyder, a Marine killed in Iraq, from obtaining damages for the emotional distress when his son’s funeral was protested by the group.

The bill prohibits protests up to two hours before and after a funeral. It also states that protests cannot be held within 300 feet of the cemetery, and bans blocking someone from entering or leaving the cemetery within a 500-foot radius.

Similar bills have popped up in state legislatures across the country. The Alabama house passed legislation requiring protesters to stay at least 1,000 feet or two blocks away from funerals.

Missouri passed a law that bans picketing within 300 feet of a funeral from one hour before to one hour after the ceremony.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) opposes the restriction on the grounds it violates free speech. The ACLU of Eastern Missouri is currently suing St. Charles County on behalf of the Westboro Baptist Church over the law.

The Alabama bill has advanced to the state senate.

Alabama Republican Rep. DuWayne Bridges, a former Marine himself, said the Westboro mission is to “taunt and terrorize families of fallen soldiers, and that kind of behavior has no place in Alabama.” Bridges added, “In Alabama, we honor our fallen heroes and comfort the families who lose loved ones in such tragic circumstances. Keeping these shameless demonstrations at least two blocks away will allow families to mourn in peace.”

Gabe Rottman, a policy adviser at the ACLU, opposes the ban on funeral protest. He wrote “as repellent as these protests are, they are a permissible exercise of the freedom of speech. If the First Amendment means anything, it’s that the government cannot target a group for censorship because it disagrees with the group’s message. [The Sanctity of Eternal Rest for Veterans Act] does exactly that.”

Similarly Jacob Sullum, a senior editor at the libertarian magazine Reason, notes that the language of the law applies to quiet non-intrusive protests meant to be protected under the First Amendment.

He also argues that it feeds the ego of the Phelpses’ ego to be considered America’s most hated family. He adds, “the despicable Phelpses revel in their notoriety. Why feed their sense of self-importance by making them into First Amendment martyrs?”

University of Missouri law professor Christina Wells says that state restrictions on funeral try to prevent offensive rather than intrusive protests and that “civility-based privacy interest” that has no basis in American law.

Still many Americans are relieved that the president has signed the bill into law.

Jean Durgin’s son died in Afghanistan in 2006. While his funeral wasn’t protested, Durgin strongly supports the bill. She said at a news conference upon its signing, “I’m sorry that we need legislation to compel people to behave themselves.”

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