Protests and funeral laws

Conventional values are more moral and solid than those displayed by radical leftists and rightists.

An incredible level of disrespect was shown at last week’s funeral service for Cpl. Andrew Kemple at Westboro Baptist Church in Anoka by protesters who believe that “American deaths in Iraq are divine punishment” for a country that they say “harbors homosexuals.” Elsewhere different protesters with an anti-war agenda also have attempted to exploit the media opportunity of service members’ funerals and memorials.

It is appalling that these fanatics would use religion as a means to condemn the young men and women who fight for their right to practice their religion the way they wish. Even though these heroes have passed in the line of duty, their families are still dealing with incredible grief. If we allow protesters at the funerals of our troops, where does it stop?

These folks have protested other funerals as well. They have stood outside churches and grave plots to protest the death of those who died because of a tragic disease. These examples are disturbing local indicators of a growing national trend toward tolerated radicalism and divisiveness – a truly sad reminder free speech can be abused for any agenda.

Conventional American values are more moral and solid than those displayed by radical leftists and rightists in these protest groups.

Funerals, especially military funerals, simply are not appropriate venues for political protest. Regardless of whether you are for or against the war or for or against gay rights, civilized people certainly can agree this kind of activity disrespects America’s fallen heroes. These families are going through the painful process of burying a loved one, and these extremists are adding to that pain.

Ignoring these protesters doesn’t work – hence the reaction of a citizen’s group calling itself the Patriot Guard Riders that has taken independent actions to protect the families of the fallen by creating human walls and staging counter-protests to these fringe church members and other groups. The group’s national spokesman has said, “This is just the right thing to do. This is something America didn’t do in the ’70s. Whether we agree with why we’re over there, these soldiers are dying to protect our freedoms.”

While the cause of the Patriot Guard Riders appears on its face to be a noble private enterprise, it is time for our legislature to act for the public good, but carefully – because any legislation must avoid giving protesters attention to individual issues and protect First Amendment free speech.

More than a dozen states already have pursued legislation to move protesters of any ilk away from the immediate vicinity of any funeral.

An Alabama legislator initiated a bill that would “make it a crime to protest one hour before, during and immediately after a funeral or memorial service, or to impede traffic going to or from a service or the cemetery.” South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds recently signed into law a similar bill that takes effect immediately and bans protests within 1,000 feet of a funeral. Missouri and Wisconsin now also have funeral protection laws on the books.

Minnesota also must focus on the right of families to grieve privately and in relative peace by using its power to prevent protesters from harassing grieving families within a certain time and distance from funerals.

We have a right to free speech in this great nation; we have the right to say what we want, when we want, but none of us have an unrestricted right to invade the privacy of a grieving family. Making a scene at a funeral merely exposes the selfish and radical ideology of those who put a political agenda ahead of a family’s right to grieve privately.

Our First Amendment guarantees the right to free speech and peaceable assembly. However, in this situation, one group’s speech infringes on the rights of a family’s freedom to practice their religion in their own chosen manner. Funerals are generally religious ceremonies, which is why it is even more alarming that a church group and its leader trample on the same constitutional rights that give them the freedom to preach their ministry.

Let’s move the fanatics somewhere away from the families of our fallen, where they can draw as much attention to themselves and whatever political ideas they have as they can muster on their own.

Andrew Borene served as a U.S. Marine in Iraq and is seeking DFL endorsement to run for the Minnesota State Senate from Edina.

Andy Davis served in Iraq and Afghanistan and is seeking a Republican endorsement to run for the Minnesota House of Representatives from St. Peter.