JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) -- The Missouri House pressed forward Thursday to put new restrictions on funeral protests, despite a U.S. Supreme Court ruling earlier this week affirming the First Amendment right of groups such as Westboro Baptist Church to hold demonstrations.
State lawmakers said they want to keep protesters away from funerals to protect mourners from intrusions and because of fears that violence could be directed at demonstrators.
The House voted 142-15 on Thursday to approve legislation that would make it a misdemeanor to protest within 500 feet of a cemetery, mortuary, church or other house of worship from two hours before a funeral to two hours after the ceremony. Violators would face up to six months in jail. The legislation also would make it easier for people to file lawsuits for the infliction of emotional distress against protesters who violate those restrictions.
That bill -- now moving to the state Senate -- comes after a federal judge declared last year that two Missouri funeral protest laws approved in 2006 were unconstitutional.
The legislative efforts are aimed at members of the Topeka, Kan.-based Westboro Baptist Church, who hold funeral demonstrations across the country while contending that the deaths are God's punishment for the nation's tolerance of homosexuality. Many of the protests have been at funerals for members of the military.
On Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with Westboro and ended a lawsuit brought by Albert Snyder, who sued church members for the emotional pain caused by a demonstration at his son Matthew's funeral in Maryland. Chief Justice John Roberts said in his opinion for the court that the First Amendment protects "even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate"
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