Oregon lawmakers vote to ban funeral protests

SALEM — The Oregon House voted Thursday to let funeral organizers keep uninvited guests away from a burial or memorial service, an attempt to keep a Kansas church from protesting at the funerals of slain soldiers and others.

The bill would allow families to apply for permission from the city or county to keep anyone they don't like outside of a 400-foot radius around the property where a funeral is taking place. It also would make it illegal to protest within 1,000 feet. The bill passed the House on a 55-3 vote and now goes to the Senate.

"It's our job to create a framework for the society we want to live in," said Rep. Patrick Sheehan, R-Clackamas, a sponsor of the bill.

The measure, HB3241, targets demonstrators from the Westboro Baptist Church who have picketed high-profile funerals around the country contending God is punishing the military for the nation's tolerance of homosexuality. The protests have angered mourning families and sparked counter protests aimed at drowning out the church's message.

Church demonstrators have picketed funerals with signs saying "Thank God for dead soldiers" and "You're Going to Hell." The group also demonstrates against Roman Catholics, Jews and many other groups.

Opponents contend the law would be an unconstitutional infringement on free speech. Andrea Meyer, legislative director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon, said the Westboro church often targets states that enact anti-picketing laws, challenges them in court and wins thousands of dollars in attorney fees that they're able to use to fund their protests.

"States end up funding the abhorrent speech they seek to avoid," Meyer said.

The ACLU argues that the bill gives individuals unfettered power to grant and enforce applications for exclusion zones around funerals.

Even the proponents of Oregon's law acknowledged in a floor debate that its legality is likely to be decided in court. But they said they believe the measure creates an appropriate balance allowing protesters to exercise their free speech at a distance while allowing people to bury loved ones in peace.

"This isn't just about our soldiers, it's about everybody having the right to lay their loved ones to rest and doing so peacefully in the manner they choose," said Rep. Greg Matthews, D-Gresham.

A person convicted of disrupting a funeral inside a 1,000-foot radius would face one year in jail and a $6,250 fine. If a family has been granted a permit for a 400-foot exclusion zone, an uninvited guest who remains after being asked to leave would face up to six months in jail and a $2,500 fine.

Oregon's effort follows a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in March, which held that Westboro's protests are free speech protected by the First Amendment. The court's ruling ended a lawsuit by a father who sued the church for emotional distress when demonstrators picketed his son's funeral.

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