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Funeral Protest Ban Clears Maryland House

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) ― Alarmed by protesters who hold up signs such as "Thank God For Dead Soldiers" at military funerals, the Maryland House voted Wednesday to ban funeral protests that use speech likely to incite a fight.

The bill passed 132-3, despite concerns from 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 believe that American soldiers are dying because of the nation's tolerance of gay people.

Earlier this month, the Westminster 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. Protesters use anti-gay epithets and have inspired large counter-demonstrations.

"This bill seems to be having so much momentum right now," said Democratic Delegate Mary-Dulany James, who sponsored the measure.

James said the only opposition came from the Maryland ACLU, which raised free speech concerns. The bill was amended to take out time restrictions, so that 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.

"Any time you start infringing on the speech rights, I have a problem with that," said Delegate Nathaniel Oaks of Baltimore.

Another "no" voter, Delegate Jill Carter of Baltimore, said the Westboro protests are "very offensive" but that she didn't
want to vote to limit speech. She also questioned whether picketers saying they're 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," Carter said.

The state attorney general has advised that the bill is constitutional, said Delegate Sandy Rosenberg, D-Baltimore, who voted for the protest limits.

In a telephone interview Wednesday, Westboro church member Shirley Phelps-Roper said 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" church members believe are coming from God.

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

(© 2006 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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