FARGO – In response to last week’s Supreme Court ruling in favor of the Westboro Baptist Church, North Dakota Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad says he wants to strengthen legislation that protects military funeral services from the presence of protesters.
In 2006, Conrad helped craft a law that bans protesters from within 300 feet of military funerals – but he said today that it won’t be enough in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision.
“I am a staunch defender of the Constitution, and a believer in free speech. However, I believe the rights of protesters must be balanced against the privacy rights of a family in mourning,” Conrad said in a statement. “Disrupting military funerals goes beyond the bounds of decency. It must stop, and it must stop now.”
The Westboro Baptist Church has become well-known across the United States for picketing the funerals of fallen soldiers in a show of the group’s extreme opposition to homosexuality.
Members of the Topeka, Kan.-based church protested in Fargo in 2006 at the funeral of National Guard Spc. Michael Hermanson, who died while serving in the Iraq war.
A father of a soldier eventually sued the church after its members protested at his own son’s funeral. Last year, Conrad had joined in an amicus brief in the case, in which he argued that private persons have the right to a peaceful funeral and that protests like Westboro’s are not protected by the First Amendment.
But on March 2, the Supreme Court ruled 8-1 in Snyder v. Phelps that the First Amendment gives members of the Westboro Baptist Church the right to picket funerals.
“We must put an end to the harassment and give the families of the fallen the dignity, peace, and respect they deserve,” Conrad said. “I will work with my colleagues in the Senate and veterans’ groups across the nation to further strengthen the Constitutional federal criminal law we already have in place to protect families of the fallen.”