Editorial: Funeral law should stick

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, May 16, 2006

A bill intended to halt protesters from disrupting funerals passed into Minnesota law last week. The law bans demonstrations within 500 feet of memorial services, funeral or burial with the intent of disrupting the services.

We agree with the law, but we want to take note of the gray areas involved, and why, when all is said and done in the courts, we hope it remains a law.

This legislation comes in response to the Westboro Baptist

Church of Topeka, Kan., protesting a fallen soldier from Minnesota on Feb. 23. The church is really a hate group that follows the teachings of the Rev. Fred Phelps. He and his verbal followers insist God allows American soldiers to die as a punishment for how America condones homosexuality and adultery.

Phelps has done this in many states over the past year. Signs read &8220;Thank God for Dead Soldiers&8221; and other disturbing messages. Other states have passed laws similar to Minnesota’s.

Normally, when it comes to laws concerning speech, free-speech institutions such as newspapers, record companies, film industry, libraries, ACLU, First Amendment Center, book publishers and so forth &045; from Nashville to Hollywood &045; bark concerns over criminalizing free speech.

The funeral law, however, divides them.

In this case, some argue: How does one define a protest? Is the law &8220;content-neutral,&8221; meaning that if picketers showed laudatory support for the deceased would authorities take actions the same as when people display disrespectful comments?

The measures have sparked lawsuits, and some say the lawsuits could benefit people like Phelps, because it is hard to win a First Amendment restriction. The case of law regarding public spaces of streets and sidewalks is well settled. If one of the ongoing lawsuits challenging the new funeral-picketing laws reaches the Supreme Court, a judicial ruling could clear the way for Phelps and his ilk to have greater access to funerals than he had before the laws were made.

In other words, the new laws could backfire.

We would like the law to stick around. We feel the Minnesota law strikes the right balance because it doesn’t prevent people from stating their feelings. Rather, it merely says they cannot intend to disrupt the services. We already have case law for the same issue.

Children in school &045; another public space &045; can express their political feelings, but they cannot disrupt classes to make their views known. A black armband to protest a war is OK, but jumping up and down and shouting in the middle of algebra is not, according to Tinker v. Des Moines School District. That ruling said the armbands did not impinge on the rights of others.

We feel the new funeral laws will find a niche in that line of thinking. People can display their positive or negative feelings near a funeral, even within the set distance, as long they don’t seek to disrupt. If they need to be unruly, then they can do so outside the set distance.