WASHINGTON — Families of fallen soldiers “have earned the right to bury their loved ones in peace,” says U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe.

And in the wake of a Supreme Court decision earlier this year to permit the Westboro Baptist Church to carry on its disruptive protests at military funerals, lawmakers must step in with stronger protections for those families, says Snowe, R-Maine.

On Wednesday, Snowe introduced the Sanctity of Eternal Rest for Veterans Act – dubbed the SERVE Act – an effort to keep raucous protestors from getting too close to military funerals and increase penalties for breaking the rules of conduct.

Snowe’s involvement in the issue was prompted by a Maine high school student’s campaign to ban such protests.

“Those who fight and die in the service of our country deserve our highest respect,” Snowe said in a prepared statement. “The SERVE Act strikes a balance between the sanctity of a funeral service and the right to free speech.”

Snowe’s proposal would alter federal law to increase the “quiet time” in which protests are prohibited before and after military funerals from one hour to two hours, and increase the distance that protestors must stay from services.

Current law sets a 150-foot boundary around a service and 300 feet around the access route to the service. Snowe’s bill would increase the buffers to 300 feet and 500 feet, respectively. It also would impose penalties on violators, including as much as two years in prison.

The Supreme Court ruled 8-1 in March that First Amendment free speech rights protect the anti-gay protests staged at military funerals nationwide by the small Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan.

The case originated with the group’s protest at the 2006 funeral in Maryland of Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, 20, who was killed in Iraq.

The church members say soldiers are killed as an act of God in retribution for tolerance of gays and lesbians.

They have protested in Maine at least once, in 2007 in Portland, at the funeral for a soldier who died in Iraq. They indicated several other times that they would come to Maine but didn’t show up.

Maine law says it is a crime to taunt, insult or otherwise accost any person at a funeral.
Before the Supreme Court decision, Zach Parker of Searsport High School began his campaign to outlaw protests at military funerals.

Parker’s involvement led Snowe to sponsor the legislation. Her staff was at a community meeting organized by the high school senior in early January. When Snowe heard about Parker’s campaign, she promised to take a look at his proposal in light of what was pending in the Supreme Court. She decided to go ahead with the legislation once the ruling was released in early March.

Snowe’s office said she spoke with Parker on Wednesday to let him know that the bill has been introduced.

Parker, 17, said in a phone interview Wednesday that he is giving Snowe’s legislation his full support.
“I am glad that it went this far and I am hoping that what she has will go through,” Parker said. “I know (Snowe) will do her best to go through with everything, and hopefully we will get this bill passed and it will become law.”

Among the co-sponsors by Wednesday late afternoon were Democratic Sens. Kent Conrad of North Dakota, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, and Republican Sens. Dan Coats of Indiana, John Hoeven of North Dakota, Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, Mike Johanns of Nebraska and Marco Rubio of Florida, Snowe’s office said.

Among the groups supporting the bill so far are the Enlisted Association of the National Guard of the United States, the Military Order of the Purple Heart, the Non Commissioned Officers Association and Veterans of Foreign Wars, Snowe’s office said.

Chief Justice John Roberts said in the court’s decision that the protests are “hurtful” and don’t contribute much, if at all, to public discourse, but that doesn’t mean the protestors can be banned.

“As a nation we have chosen a different course – to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate,” Roberts said.

In the Snyder case, the Westboro protesters picketed from a distance of about 1,000 feet.

In 2006, Congress passed the Respect for America’s Fallen Heroes Act, which established the current restrictions. The Supreme Court ruling did not appear to negate such restrictions.

States including Maryland and New York are considering laws to increase the mandated separation between military funerals and protestors.

Snowe’s legislation would put restrictions in federal law and cover protests at federal cemeteries.

In the U.S. House, Rep. C.A. Ruppersberger, D-Md., has introduced a bill to increase the distance at which protestors must stay to 2,500 feet and the time before and after services in which protests are banned to five hours.

Washington Bureau Chief Jonathan Riskind can be contacted at 791-6280 or at:

[email protected]

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