Members of the Missouri House brush aside concerns about a United States Supreme Court ruling and overwhelmingly approve restrictions to protests at funerals.
Between initial debate in the House Monday and final consideration Thursday came the Supreme Court decision in a Maryland case that Westboro Baptist Church members had a First Amendment right to picket funerals no matter how disgusting their message might be.
That ruling didn’t stop the House from giving final approval to HCS HB 276, 233 & 274 that Rep. Chris Kelly (D-Columbia), a lawyer and former judge, acknowledged might well be flawed.
“This conduct which we all abhor; I don’t think we should just lay down because of this decision,” Kelly told colleagues during House floor debate. “I think we should keep trying to find the constitutionally acceptable, correct point.”
The House might have strayed from that point during debate Monday. Amendments added to the bill lengthened restrictions on when people can protest at a funeral in Missouri and how far back protestors must stay. The bill originally called for protests to be prohibited from an hour prior to the funeral until two hours afterward. Protestors would be allowed no closer than 300 feet. The House approved changes to increase the time to two hours prior to the funeral until two hours afterward and the distance to 500 feet.
The Supreme Court ruling, which came on Wednesday, weighed on House members during debate, but ultimately, the House decided to move forward.
Sponsor Ward Franz, a Republican representative from West Plains, vowed to keep crafting his bill as it moves to the Senate, trying to find the constitutional balance needed.
“So, Mr. Speaker, let’s continue trying to get this worded correctly, fixed, to get it into state laws to protect our families who are hurting,” Franz stated during his close on the bill.
Missouri has been turned back by the courts before. Earlier attempts to restrict funeral protests have been overturned by the courts. The legislature grappled with the issue in the wake of protests at military funerals staged by the Westboro Baptist Church, a fringe congregation comprised mainly of family members of the Rev. Fred Phelps in Topeka, Kansas. Westboro traveled to Missouri and other states to spread its message that military deaths are a result of God’s punishment on America for tolerating homosexuality. This latest attempt hopes to succeed where the others failed.
The House has sent the bill to the Senate on a 142-to-15 vote.