- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 22, 2006

ANNAPOLIS — Alarmed by protesters who hold up signs such as “Thank God For Dead Soldiers” at military funerals, the Maryland House voted yesterday to ban funeral protests that use speech likely to incite a fight.

The bill passed 132-3, despite concerns by some that it could weaken free speech.

Congress and more than a dozen states are considering similar bills in response to protests by the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., whose members think that American soldiers are dying because of the nation’s tolerance of homosexuals.

Earlier this month, the Westminster, Md., funeral of Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder was picketed by seven members of the church.

Similar protests across the country have made lawmakers re-examine the limits of free speech. Demonstrators use anti-homosexual epithets and have inspired large counterdemonstrations.

“This bill seems to be having so much momentum right now,” said Delegate Mary-Dulany James, Harford Democrat and sponsor of the measure.

Mrs. James said the only opposition came from the Maryland ACLU, which raised free-speech concerns.

The bill was amended to take out time restrictions; it now reads that a person may not say something to a funeral attendee “likely to incite or produce an imminent breach of the peace” within 300 feet of a funeral or a funeral procession.

Violations would be misdemeanors, punishable by up to 90 days in jail or a $1,000 fine.

Just three lawmakers, all Democrats, said the bill’s amendments didn’t satisfy their concern that free speech would be hampered.

“Anytime you start infringing on the speech rights, I have a problem with that,” said Delegate Nathaniel Oaks of Baltimore.

Another “no” voter, Delegate Jill P. Carter of Baltimore, called the Westboro protests “very offensive” but said she didn’t want to vote to limit speech. She also questioned whether picketers saying they are glad a soldier is dead is as dangerous as shouting “fire” in a crowded theater and should therefore be limited.

“I don’t know that this rises to that level,” Miss Carter said.

The state attorney general has advised that the bill is constitutional, said Delegate Samuel I. “Sandy” Rosenberg, Baltimore Democrat, who voted for the protest limits.

Westboro church member Shirley Phelps-Roper said yesterday that the church is considering challenging such laws in court. She said the bans are catching on because people don’t want to hear “tidings of evil” that church members think are coming from God.

“People will not endure sound doctrine,” she said. She added that Westboro members will obey laws that are passed.

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