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Senate committee approves bill to limit funeral protests

07:00 PM CDT on Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Melinda Deslatte / Associated Press

BATON ROUGE -- A bill to limit the types of protests allowed near funerals, designed to keep an anti-gay group from disturbing military funerals, was approved Tuesday by a Senate committee.

Any gestures or displays that would "outrage the sensibilities" of people attending funerals, memorial services and burials or that would block or obstruct access to those services would be considered disturbing the peace, under Sen. Rob Marionneaux's bill.

But the penalty for disturbing the peace at a funeral or burial service would be greater than the traditional fines currently in law. Offenders could be sent to jail for up to six months and be fined up to $500, compared to a maximum 90-day prison sentence and $100 fine for other convictions of disturbing the peace.

Supporters said the measure was aimed at protests around the country that have been staged at funerals for soldiers killed in Iraq by members of Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan. Members of the fundamentalist church, headed by the Rev. Fred Phelps, claim U.S. soldiers are dying as God's punishment to America for tolerating homosexuality.

"Our families should not have to fear this kind of intimidation from fellow Americans," said Janet Broussard, who is a member of Blue Star Mothers of Louisiana, a group for mothers whose children are serving in the military.

Broussard said the Westboro Baptist Church hasn't protested in Louisiana, but she said supporters of the bill wanted to ensure the church group didn't disrupt military funerals in the state.

Families "deserve the right to bury their children with dignity, honor, respect and with peace," Broussard told the Senate Judiciary C Committee, which unanimously approved the measure.

Two dozen states have passed or are considering legislation that would restrict protests at funerals in response to the Westboro Baptist Church's demonstrations. The church has said it will obey such laws though it considers them an infringement of its free-speech rights.

Several of the measures would require all types of protesters to stay at least 500 feet away from any funeral or ceremony at a cemetery. The original bill by Marionneaux, D-Livonia, was similar, but it was changed to instead address the funeral protests by amending laws on disturbing the peace.

No one spoke in opposition to the bill. Sen. Joel Chaisson, D-Destrehan, chairman of the committee, said while he supported an individual's right to free speech and to protest, he believes the state could put some restrictions on groups who are picketing at funerals.

(Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)