State could ban funeral protests

Army Capt. Jason Hamill was memorialized in East Lyme on Dec. 16 at what was intended to be a solemn service for the 31-year-old soldier, killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq last year.

Instead, Hamill’s family and friends found themselves face-to-face with protesters criticizing not just the war but also the men fighting it.

“God Almighty killed Army Capt. Hamill,” said the group’s flier promoting the protest. “He died in shame, not honor — for a fag nation cursed by God.”

In light of that demonstration — and threats of similar protests during funerals for other local servicemen killed in action — the Connecticut General Assembly may adopt a bill that would ban protesters from military funerals in the state. Despite First Amendment concerns, similar legislation has been passed in other states and by Congress, and Connecticut’s bill received only positive support at a hearing of the General Assembly’s Select Committee on Veterans’ Affairs on Thursday.

State Senator Leonard Fasano ’81, Republican from North Haven and the sponsor of the bill, said the legislation has received positive endorsements from veterans across the state, as well as from funeral home directors and the state Attorney General’s office. Grieving families should not have to be confronted by such hurtful protests, he said.

“There’s just certain human conduct that I think people should respect,” Fasano said. “When you’re going to a fallen soldier’s funeral … and the family needs time to grieve and mourn, that’s not the place to disrupt that person’s grieving by making a political or personal statement.”

The bill would ban protesters from coming within 150 feet of funeral processions and 300 feet of funeral services, and would take effect one hour before any military funeral, extending an hour beyond the conclusion of services. Violators would be charged with a class A misdemeanor.

State Sen. Andrew Maynard, Democrat of Stonington and chair of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said the committee members support the bill and will vote on it at their next meeting on March 1 before sending the bill to the Judiciary Committee.

Maynard said it is important to distinguish between peace activists and the right-wing, evangelical protesters who disrupted Capt. Hamill’s funeral. Those protesters, from the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., have traveled around the country picketing at scores of military funerals.

While peace activists nationwide have expressed outrage over the church’s protests, legislation barring protests at military funerals does concern them on First Amendment grounds, said David Amdur, Connecticut program coordinator for American Friends Service Committee, a nationwide peace group. Balancing such hateful speech — which is simply the product of one radical group and is generally condemned by even the most zealous anti-war protesters — with First Amendment rights makes the issue a complicated one, he said.

“I would probably say, reluctantly, it might not be the worst thing to have some kind of zone [barring protesters] around a funeral,” Amdur said. “But … it opens up the slippery slope — ‘You can’t protest here, you can’t protest there.’”

Fasano said the bill should not create any constitutional concerns because its protest prohibitions are limited in their scope and duration. But legislation on the same issue in other states has generated several lawsuits, and parts of one such act in Kentucky were ruled unconstitutional by a court last year. Ronald K. L. Collins, a scholar at the non-partisan First Amendment Center in Washington, D.C., said the Connecticut bill appears to be flawed as well, both as policy and as law.

“When you single out the military, that’s called content discrimination,” he said. “You’re saying certain types of protests are permissible, while there are other types that are impermissible … The government can’t pick and choose, ‘This message we like and will permit, this message we don’t like and won’t permit.’”

For Connecticut legislators, though, the goal of the bill is to stop the radical picketers — some of whom waved placards that said “Thank God for IEDs” — who disrupted Capt. Hamill’s funeral.

“We’re not trying to gag anyone’s First Amendments rights,” Maynard said. “But it seems reasonable to say that ugly and truly bigoted and inflammatory protests in front of funeral homes, churches and cemeteries at a time when people are grieving is really excessive.”

Legislation similar to Connecticut’s bill has been passed in more than two dozen states, and a similar measure passed by Congress was signed into law in December. The Connecticut act will not likely be voted on by the General Assembly until May, Fasano said.

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