WASHINGTON – Demonstrators would be barred from disrupting military funerals at national cemeteries under legislation approved by Congress and sent to the White House Wednesday
The measure, passed by voice vote in the House hours after the Senate passed an amended version, specifically targets a Kansas church group that has staged protests at military funerals around the country, claiming that the deaths were a sign of God's anger at U.S. tolerance of homosexuals.
The act "will protect the sanctity of all 122 of our national cemeteries as shrines to their gallant dead," Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said prior to the Senate vote.
"It's a sad but necessary measure to protect what should be recognized by all reasonable people as a solemn, private and deeply sacred occasion," he said.
Under the Senate bill, approved without objection by the House with no recorded vote, the "Respect for America's Fallen Heroes Act" would bar protests within 300 feet of the entrance of a cemetery and within 150 feet of a road into the cemetery from 60 minutes before to 60 minutes after a funeral. Those violating the act would face up to a $100,000 fine and up to a year in prison.
The sponsor of the House bill, Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., said he took up the issue after attending a military funeral in his home state, where mourners were greeted by "chants and taunting and some of the most vile things I have ever heard."
"Families deserve the time to bury their American heroes with dignity and in peace," Rogers said Wednesday before the Hosue vote.
The demonstrators are led by the Rev. Fred Phelps of Topeka, Kan., who has previously organized protests against those who died of AIDS and gay murder victim Matthew Shepard.
In an interview when the House bill passed, Phelps said Congress was "blatantly violating the First Amendment" rights to free speech in passing the bill. He said that if the bill becomes law he will continue to demonstrate but would abide by the restrictions.
Sen. Pat Roberts, a Republican from Kansas, said the loved ones of those who die have already sacrificed for the nation and "we must allow them the right to mourn without being thrust into a political circus."
In response to the demonstrations, the Patriot Guard Riders, a motorcyle group including many veterans, has begun appearing at military funerals to pay respects to the fallen service member and protect the family from disruptions.
More than a dozen states are considering similar laws to restrict protests at nonfederal cemeteries. The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit against a new Kentucky law, saying it goes too far in limiting freedom of speech and expression.