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Maryland may ban
antigay protests at military funerals

Maryland may ban
antigay protests at military funerals

Maryland may join a growing number of states to put limits on protests at military funerals amid fears that a conservative church group from Kansas might target funerals with antigay picketing. The bill, to be considered by a house committee in Annapolis on Friday, would make Maryland at least the 15th state to regulate funeral protests in response to the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., which believes American military deaths are God's retribution for tolerance of gay people. Church members have publicly given thanks for soldiers' deaths at military funerals, raising calls to regulate the protests. "We shouldn't have to subject any family to this," said Democratic delegate Mary-Dulany James, who sponsored the bill. "I'm stunned anybody would do that when people are grieving." The measure would ban protests at funerals within an hour before they start. It would also make it a crime to obstruct mourners from funerals or burials. Violations would be misdemeanors punishable by up to 90 days in jail or a $1,000 fine. Sponsors conceded that the bill could lead to free-speech lawsuits if it is passed. The measure, like in other states, is modeled after regulation of protests at abortion clinics. Courts have ruled that some limits on free speech, like the laws barring protesters from blocking access to abortion clinics, are allowed. "We really don't think we're cutting off their rights to protest or speak their minds," said Democratic delegate Joan Cadden. "I just feel it's so important for veterans and their families. It's such an emotionally sad time for them." Reached by telephone, a church member said the group has never protested a funeral in Maryland but would sue over the bill if it passes. Shirley Phelps-Roper, daughter of Fred Phelps, head of the church, equated the protest ban to "spitting in the face of God." "They're going to give away rights that they claim these soldiers have died for? They're going to spit in their graves for what? Some words?" Phelps-Roper said. The Maryland American Civil Liberties Union said it had not had time to review the bill but that it might oppose it. The solution to objectionable protests, said ACLU public education director Meredith Curtis, is to speak up even louder in support of the veterans. "The ACLU agrees that the message of this group is reprehensible," she said. "I don't think that soldiers' families should have to feel harassed. But there needs to be an appropriate balance struck between people's rights to speak, no matter how much we disapprove of what they say, and the grief that families are experiencing." James said she was confident her measure would appropriately balance the two. "I'm very aware we have to protect free speech. But there is a time and a place, and funerals aren't the place," she said. (AP)

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