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

January 23, 2013 - 6:00pm

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 bills introduction was motivated by the activities of a Kansas sect, the Westboro Baptist Church. The churchs 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 Floridas 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.

Bunkleys 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 billmust 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 byRep. Patrick Rooney, R-West Palm Beach, is making progress in the House.

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

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