ANNAPOLIS – Disgusted by a recent protest at the funeral of a soldier in Carroll County, where gay marriage opponents carried signs disparaging American war dead, the House passed a bill Wednesday to ban such demonstrations at funerals.
The bill, which was approved by a vote of 132-3, prohibits protestors from picketing within 300 feet of a funeral or funeral procession, saying words that are likely to incite violence to funeral attendees, or obstructing the entry or exit of those attending the funeral.
The legislation follows a March 10 protest by the members of a Topeka, Kansas Baptist church at the funeral of Lance Cpl. Matthew A. Snyder, who was killed in Iraq.
Members of the Westboro Baptist Church, who say the deaths of American soldiers in Iraq are God’s retribution for homosexuality in America, held up signs at the funeral with slogans like “Semper Fi Fags” and “Thank God for IED’s,” a reference to the improvised explosive devices that have killed many Americans in the country.
Surprisingly, Shirley Phelps-Roper, a member of the Westboro Baptist Church, said she was happy that the measure passed the House, which she referred to as the “Maryland Taliban.”
“A nation who has forgotten her God, I say that nation does not deserve to have freedom,” Roper said. “I’m so happy that they’re working at dismantling the First Amendment.”
“They’re [the General Assembly] not the first turkeys to try and interfere with our work,” Roper said.
One of the bill’s sponsor’s, Delegate Mary-Dulany James, D – Harford, said there is more to consider than just the First Amendment.
“There’s a right to be left alone, there’s a right to bury your dead . . . and those rights are equally – if not more – important than the First Amendment,” James said. “We should not allow anybody to interfere with the sanctity and solemness of a funeral or military service.”
The three delegates to vote against the bill – Nathaniel T. Oaks, D-Baltimore, Jill P. Carter, D-Baltimore and Darryl A. Kelley, D-Prince Georges – all did so because they opposed limitations on First Amendment rights of expression, according to the Associated Press.
Though a spokeswoman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland said the group “finds both the message and the tactics of the [protestors] reprehensible, the ACLU opposes the bill on First Amendment grounds.
“We understand the desire to protect military families from being subjected to the protests that the Westboro Baptist Church engages in,” said the spokeswoman, Meredith Curtis. However, “you are not protecting the families by passing a law that is unconstitutional.”
Violators would face up to 90 days in prison or a fine of $1,000.
The bill still has to pass the Senate, but Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D – Southern Maryland, said it should have an easy ride.
“It’s probably one of the least-debated and easiest bills we have to pass this year,” Miller said.
Even one of the General Assembly’s most vocal opponents of gay marriage opposed the protests and said they must be “dealt with.” “I do not believe that what they’re doing is representative of the Christian faith,” said Delegate Donald H. Dwyer Jr., R – Anne Arundel. “I think it is disrespectful and a terrible, terrible example to the nation.”