Florida Catholic, Baptist Spokesmen Weigh In on Proposed Funeral Protest Ban

By: Eric Giunta | Posted: January 25, 2013 3:55 AM
Funeral Protest

Westboro Baptist Church protest

A bill that would greatly restrict the staging of protests at funerals has passed through the first of several hurdles in the state Senate committee process, and spokesmen for Florida's Catholics and Southern Baptists tell Sunshine State News they support the principles contained in it.

On Thursday, the six Republicans and four Democrats sitting on the Florida Senate Committee on Regulated Industries unanimously approved SB 118. The bill, filed by Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, and titled “Funerals, Burials, and Memorial Services,” would criminalize protest activities within 500 feet of the property line of any location where a funeral, burial, or memorial service is being held, and during or within one hour before or one hour after the conducting of such services.

(The bill defines "protest activities" as "any action, including picketing, that is undertaken with the intent to interrupt or disturb a funeral, burial, or memorial service.")

Violation of the prohibition would constitute a first-degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in county jail and a $1,000 fine. (Florida law already makes it a second-degree misdemeanor to "willfully interrupt or disturb any lawful assembly.")

The bill’s introduction was motivated by the activities of a Kansas sect, the Westboro Baptist Church. The church’s pastor, disbarred attorney and Democratic political activist Fred Phelps, regularly stages protests at the funerals of military servicemen and other famous victims of tragedy. One of their most infamous slogans is “God Hates Fags.”

Sunshine State News spoke to state spokesmen for Florida’s two largest religious denominations, the Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention, to get their take on the proposed legislation and its implications for both religious worship and free speech.

“I believe pastors will certainly embrace this legislation because it seems like a fair and respectful and decent thing to do for families at their time of bereavement,” said Bill Bunkley, who represents the Florida Baptist Convention on the newly-formed Florida Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (of which he is also president). “We totally reject the tactics utilized by the ‘Westboro Baptist Church’ and we have a long history of defending religious freedom and freedom of speech.

“While this bill gives priority to the personal rights of the family and their right to privacy, at the same time this bill does not reject free speech rights of any group who wants to protest a funeral. It just sets reasonable buffers between those two entities.”

Bunkley’s comments were echoed by Michael Sheedy, director of public policy for the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops.

“Funerals are religious services or somber rites,” Sheedy told the News. “We ought to respect those who mourn and seek to commend their loved ones to God free of distraction and protest.”

While the Catholic bishops have not yet taken a position on SB 118 or its House companion, Sheedy said the proposed law “seems like a reasonable balancing of the concerns for free speech and respecting those who mourn and grieve, and the memory of those who have died.”

Westboro Baptist, which has staged funeral protests in Florida before, did not respond to repeated requests for comment before this story went to press. Neither did spokespersons for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, which has defended the constitutional rights of the church to engage in its activities.

Benacquisto's bill must now makes its way through the Criminal Justice and Military Affairs, Space, and Domestic Security committees before heading to the Senate floor for an up or down vote. A companion bill, sponsored by Rep. Patrick Rooney, R-West Palm Beach, is making progress in the House.

Reach Eric Giunta at egiunta@sunshinestatenews.com or at (954) 235-9116.

Comments (2)

8:34AM FEB 12TH 2013
The members of the Westboro Baptist Church do have a constitutional right to free speech, however even this right has limits; an example is that no one may yell 'FIRE!' in a crowded theater.

There is another section of the Constitution: "Title 18, Part I, Chapter 115, § 2381. Treason
Whoever, owing allegiance to the United States, levies war against them or adheres to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort within the United States or elsewhere, is guilty of treason and shall suffer death, or shall be imprisoned not less than five years and fined under this title but not less than $10,000; and shall be incapable of holding any office under the United States."

aid and comfort to the enemy: Any act that deliberately strengthens or tends to strengthen enemies of the United States, or that weakens or tends to weaken the power of the United States to resist and attack such enemies is characterized as aid and comfort.
Oran's Dictionary of the Law (1983) defines treason as "...[a]...citizen's actions to help a foreign government overthrow, make war against, or seriously injure the [parent nation]."

Can anyone seriously argue that the statements and actions of this hate group do not seriously injure America, to say nothing of the grieving families of loved ones whose funeral is picketed by WBC?
Charge them with treason, convict them, and make an example of at least one by execution.

Secondly, Libel and slander are both forms of defamation. Defamation is a common law tort (a civil wrong), governed by state law, in which an individual makes a "publication" of a defamatory statement of and concerning the plaintiff that damages the reputation of the plaintiff.
The distinction between slander and libel comes in the form of the publication.

Slander involves the oral "publication" of a defamatory remark that is heard by another, which injures the subject's reputation or character.
Slander can occur through the use of a hand gesture or verbal communication that is not recorded.
Libel, on the other hand, is the written "publication" of a defamatory remark that has the tendency to injure another's reputation or character. Libel also includes a publication on radio, audio or video. Even though this would be considered oral, or verbal, communication to someone it is actually considered to be libel because it is published in a transfixed form.

Seems to me that they, individually or collectively, could be sued for libel.
david hollenshead
6:27PM JAN 26TH 2013
I wish to inform you that every state has laws against child abuse and endangerment. So your state already has laws against the wbc.

When the Westboro Baptist Church brings it's children to it's "picketing" of funerals with the "apparent" intent of causing pain, they encourage the public to harm and hate their children. This is "apparently" necessary for their childrens indoctrination of us vr. the world.

The W.B.C.'s crusade is to have the Nation kill all homosexuals, it is reasonable to call them a hate group. I learned of their "apparent" child abuse and endangerment when they came to my neighborhood to "picket" (shout "god hates jews" at) the Synagogue. They "apparently" hate homosexuals, jews, catholics, soldiers, police officers, and children. You should have heard Shirley Phelps Roper's tweet about celebrating the Sandy Hook tragedy by now.

Learn more about their "apparent" child abuse and endangerment at:
facebook group WestboroBaptistChurchsApparentChildAbuse
Learn more about their general abuse of the city of Topeka at:
facebook group TakeBackTopeka

Note: Fred Phelps is not a democratic activist, anymore than he represents baptists. He is an "apparent" horrific domestic and child abuser. Read the court document by googling "Addicted to Hate"
If you are going to cover them, please do it accurately.

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