Forum Editorial: Approve a funeral buffer bill
There is no question that some sort of funeral buffer zone bill will be passed by the North Dakota Legislature and signed into law by the governor. It's a reasonable and necessary measure to preserve the privacy and dignity of all funerals, inclu...
There is no question that some sort of funeral buffer zone bill will be passed by the North Dakota Legislature and signed into law by the governor. It's a reasonable and necessary measure to preserve the privacy and dignity of all funerals, including military funerals. But one proposed amendment might do more harm than good.
Impetus for such a law comes from recent protests at military funerals by members of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., who believe American soldiers are being killed because the United States tolerates homosexuality. Members of the church - which is not associated with mainline Baptist churches - have showed up in Minnesota and North Dakota.
Rep. Bette Grande, R-Fargo, is lead sponsor of the House bill. It would establish a 300-foot buffer zone between a funeral and protesters. Some states have gone with a 500-foot buffer, and it's possible the North Dakota bill will be modified.
Concerns about infringing on protesters' free speech rights have been raised. But the bill would not prevent demonstrators from assembling and protesting. It would, however, say where they can protest. Precedent for such a limitation is common. Anti-abortion protesters, for example, have to stay clear of the entrances to clinics and cannot block public walkways. Most cities restrict protesters from blocking streets or doorways to buildings; or keep them clear of government buildings; or rope off specific tracts in public parks.
Grande's bill is good legislation, but an amendment that would give families of soldiers the right to seek civil penalties against protesters might result in unintended consequences. The "bizarre cult" (N.D. Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem's apt description) seeks the media spotlight. A major part of its modus operandi is to be so outrageous and offensive that reporters and TV cameras will flock to its protests. (For the most part, Fargo-Moorhead media were not sucked into the protesters' scheme.)
A civil penalty option would give the Westboro gang members - who are quite sophisticated when it comes to using the courts and the media - just what they want: opportunities to spew their vile message in a courtroom. North Dakota should not give them that platform.
Pass the bill. Pass it with a buffer sufficient to protect a grieving family from the offensive lunacy of the Westboro cultists. And if they come to North Dakota again, ignore them.
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