The bill, sponsored by Rep. DuWayne Bridges, R – Valley, states that protesters must now remain 1000 ft., or approximately 2.5 blocks, away from the property lines where the funeral is being held, according to Bridges.
This is an addition to the previous law that outlines the illegality of disrupting funeral or memorial services and decrees that all protests must end at least one hour before the beginning of the service.
Bridges proffered the bill for approval in the wake of several recent funeral disruptions, particularly by the Westboro Baptist Church, a religious organization that has put itself in the national spotlight for what could be considered radical beliefs.
The WBC has picketed numerous military funerals over the past year and threatened to picket the funerals of murdered Auburn University student Lauren Burk in 2008 and last year’s Tuscaloosa tornado victims.
As a former sergeant in the Vietnam War and Alabama resident, this was a sign to Bridges that action must be taken.
“They were saying that they’re glad the soldiers were killed and that God brought judgement on them because they were serving in the military, and that’s just totally wrong,” Bridges said. “To be so disrespectful to grieving loved ones is unconscionable; they don’t deserve it and I don’t appreciate it.”
The WBC could not be reached for comment, but according to their website, “military funerals have become pagan orgies of idolatrous blasphemy, where they pray to the dunghill gods of Sodom & play taps to a fallen fool.”
Bridges said he fervently disagrees with this belief.
“My Bible doesn’t read that way,” Bridges said.
Bridges said he spent some time with a chaplain in Vietnam and saw firsthand the unquenchable grief of a family that first receives notice of the death of a loved one.
“I saw how terrible that was, and what the parents and families go through... and I just felt like they should have all the respect in the world,” Bridges said. “They’ve given their all for this country, and the least we can do is have some reverence when their family is burying them.”
House Speaker Mike Hubbard cosponsored the bill and said the situation with Lauren Burk and other funeral protests were “truly distasteful and disgusting.”
“Unfortunately, there are people out there who have a warped sense of right and wrong,” Hubbard said.
After the murder of freshman Lauren Burk in 2008, the University organized a memorial service on Samford lawn.
The WBC then issued a release on its website titled “Thank God for another Dead College Student” saying the organization planned to attend the service.
The University then moved the funeral service to the Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum and were able to avoid the picketers.
While opponents of the bill may claim this violates the First Amendment right to protest and assemble, Bridges said he did the research and H.B. 238 adheres to the Constitution.
The 1000 ft. limit was the maximum distance that could be applied, Bridges said.
“If I (could) I’d move them 1000 miles away,” Bridges said.
The WBC’s penchant for harassing military funerals across the country has gained national attention, and there is some dissent on the degree of its illegality.
In March 2011, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment protected the the WBC after Albert Snyder, father of deceased Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, sued them for emotional distress after they picketed his son’s funeral.
Alabama legislators such as Hubbard, however, are taking a more personal view on the matter.
“They have First Amendment rights, and they can (protest) when they want to do it, but they do not have a right to interfere with someone else’s First Amendment rights,” Hubbard said.
Gov. Bentley said the law doubles the distance from which protesters can assemble, but the law is necessary for families’ “privacy and dignity.”
“There is nothing we could ever say or do to replace the loss of a loved one,” Bentley said. “What we can do is ensure that proper respect, dignity and reverence are preserved as (people) gather for such a solemn event.”
“I’m proud of the fact we passed the law,” Hubbard said. “I think it was appropriate and I believe the vast majority of Alabamians would agree with that.”