SARAH COOKE Associated Press Writer
HELENA A Senate committee endorsed legislation Friday that would restrict protests at funerals. The bill, overwhelmingly supported by the military community but opposed by civil liberties advocates, won tentative approval, 9-3, from the Senate Judiciary Committee and was sent to the Senate floor for further debate. Sens. Carol Juneau, D-Browning, Jerry O’Neill, R-Columbia Falls, and Carol Williams, D-Missoula, voted against the proposal, known as the Right to Grieve in Privacy Act. A response to military funeral protests by the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., in recent years, the measure by Sen. Joe Tropila, D-Great Falls, would ban picketing within 1,500 feet of a funeral site such as churches, mortuaries and cemeteries. Several committee members acknowledged struggling with their decision before voting for the bill, saying they respected free speech and assembly rights but also the right of families to grieve in private. “The irony of this bill, in my opinion, is that what our military personnel and soldiers are doing, what they’re fighting for, is the protesters’ right to protest,” Committee Chairman Sen. Jesse Laslovich, D-Anaconda, said. Others feared the law went too far, with Juneau suggesting she could be thrown in jail for protesting the funeral of someone who, for example, had killed her grandchild. “We’re thinking of just one situation in making this decision, and that might not be good in considering just one situation in making a law,” she said. Sen. Jim Shockley, R-Victor, said he believed the proposal, if passed, would likely be challenged in court, although fellow committee member Sen. Aubyn Curtiss, R-Fortine, said that’s a risk she’s willing to take. “Most people I represent cherish traditional American values and are tired of being bludgeoned by someone else’s interpretations of the Supreme Court,” she said. Westboro Baptist Church members have protested at military funerals across the country, saying God is killing soldiers because America supports homosexuality. Last August, they picketed outside the Wolf Creek funeral of Marine Cpl. Phillip E. Baucus, the 28-year-old nephew of Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont. Phillip Baucus was killed in Iraq. About 30 other states have passed similar protest restrictions. The bill is Senate Bill 15.