New law counters Westboro protests

Congress takes aim at church best known for protesting fallen troops' funerals.

Congress took action where the Supreme Court didn’t to curb Westbooro Baptist Church’s followers from protesting the funerals of fallen troops and veterans.

President Obama signed into law Monday the Honoring America’s Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act that includes language aimed at protecting service members funerals. The church based in Kansas is best known for staging protests at service members funerals to protest the service of homosexuals in the military.

In 2011, the Supreme Court ruled the First Amendment protected Westboro’s right to protest the funerals. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion that “as a nation we have chosen … to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate.”

Sen. Olympia Snow, R-Maine, introduced legislation three months following the Court’s ruling that gives the government the right to further protect the funerals.  The act argues that ensuring fallen troops have respectful burials is important to maintaining a strong military and protecting national security.

The new law extends bans on picketing funeral services of troops and veterans from 150 feet to 300 feet, and prohibits protests from being conducted up to two hours before and after a funeral. Previously the ban was for an hour before and after.

Violations are punishable by a fine and up to a year in jail.

“The graves of our veterans are hallowed ground, and obviously we all defend our Constitution and the First Amendment and free speech,” Obama said at the White House ceremony Monday. “But we also believe that when men and women die in the service of their country and are laid to rest, it should be done with the utmost honor and respect.”

The other half of the law dictates the medical care for the thousands of service members and families afflicted with illnesses from ingesting contaminated water at  Camp Lejeune, N.C. between 1957 and 1987. Read more here about the fight families have sustained for Congress to acknowledge the effect the water has had on up to one million troops and their family members.

– Bryant Jordan

About the Author

Bryant Jordan
Bryant Jordan is an associate editor and White House correspondent for Military.com. Bryant covers all corners of the military arena, is an expert on "Don't Ask Don't Tell" issues, religious proselytizing and other ongoing military policy issues. He has covered Air Force support missions during the Kosovo War and in 2006 the aero-medical evacuation mission out of Balad Air Base, Iraq.A journalist since 1979, Jordan also covered stories in Lebanon, Gaza and Morocco. During the Vietnam War he was assigned to 15th Admin. Co., 1st Cavalry Division, Bien Hoa Army Base. Before joining Military.com Jordan was a staff writer and deputy news editor for Military Times newspapers in Springfield, Va.