WASHINGTON – Backed by a bipartisan group of senators, supported by veterans groups and inspired by a Maine high school student, a bill to protect military funerals from disruptive protests might soon receive a Senate floor vote.

It didn’t take long at a hearing of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee on Wednesday for Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, to pick up additional support and a date for a committee vote on her proposed Sanctity of Eternal Rest for Veterans Act.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the panel’s chair, said the committee will vote on the bill June 29 along with a larger package of veterans’ affairs legislation. If approved by the committee, the next step will be a vote by the Senate. A similar version of Snowe’s bill has been introduced in the House.

Snowe testified before the committee that the SERVE Act is needed because of “detestable” protests at military funerals by a fringe church based in Kansas and a U.S. Supreme Court decision in March upholding the church’s free-speech rights to stage such protests.

But the ruling “does not mean that preserving both freedom of speech and the sanctity of a military funeral are mutually exclusive,” Snowe said. “It is painful enough to lose a son or a daughter, without then having to confront detestable and distasteful protests that exponentially compound their agony and anguish.”

Snowe’s bill had 25 co-sponsors, Democrats and Republicans, before the hearing. At the hearing, Snowe won the backing of the committee’s top Republican, Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, as well as two Democrats who attended to discuss bills of their own, Sens. Mark Warner of Virginia and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island.

Snowe’s legislation would alter federal law to increase from one hour to two hours the “quiet time” in which protests are prohibited before and after military funerals.

It also would increase the distance that protesters must stay from services. While current law sets a 150-foot boundary around a service and 300 feet around access routes to the service, Snowe’s bill calls for buffers of 300 feet and 500 feet, respectively.

The bill would impose civil penalties and allow family members and the U.S. attorney general to sue violators for monetary damages of as much as $50,000.

“We are moving in a direction that bodes well for this legislation,” Snowe told reporters after she testified. “It is a real triumph.”

At the hearing was the Maine high school student who inspired Snowe to introduce the SERVE Act in April. Searsport High School senior Zach Parker took a break from final exam week and preparing to graduate to see what started as a class project turn into the subject of a Senate hearing and, potentially, a new federal law.

“I didn’t expect it to go this far,” said Parker, who started out just trying to raise awareness about the issue. “To think it’s now a Senate bill, it’s exciting.”

Before the Supreme Court’s decision, Parker started a campaign to outlaw any protests at military funerals.

Snowe’s staff was at a community meeting organized by Parker in early January, a seminar that grew out of a class assignment to research a political or social issue and then act on that research.

When Snowe heard about Parker’s campaign, she promised to take a look at his proposal in light of the pending Supreme Court decision. She decided to go ahead with the legislation once the ruling was released in early March.

The Supreme Court ruled 8-1 that First Amendment free speech rights protect the anti-gay protests that the small, fringe Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., has staged at military funerals nationwide.

Church members say soldiers are killed as an act of God, in retribution for tolerance of gays and lesbians.

The group protested in Portland in 2007 at the funeral for a soldier who had died in Iraq. It indicated that it would come to Maine several other times but didn’t show up.

Maine law says it is a crime to taunt, insult or otherwise accost any person attending a funeral.

In 2006, Congress passed the Respect for American’s Fallen Heroes Act, which established the current restrictions. The Supreme Court ruling did not appear to negate such restrictions.

Other states, including Maryland and New York, are considering changing their laws to increase the mandated separation between military funerals and protesters.

Snowe said her legislation is meant to “build off” the 2006 federal law and various protections in place in 43 states.

The Supreme Court ruled in a case concerning the Westboro Baptist Church’s presence in 2006 at the funeral in Maryland of Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, 20, who was killed in Iraq. The protesters had picketed from a distance of about 1,000 feet.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts said in the decision that the protests are “hurtful” and contribute little, if anything, to public discourse, but that doesn’t mean the protesters can be banned.

“As a nation we have chosen a different course — to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate,” Roberts said.

Among the groups supporting Snowe’s legislation is the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

“We fully support any legislative effort that emphasizes the right of free speech does not trump a family’s right to mourn in private,” Raymond C. Kelley, director of the VFW’s national legislative service, said in written testimony for Wednesday’s hearing. “Those who use the First Amendment as both a shield and a sword to harm their fellow citizens need to have limits on such abuse, and (the SERVE Act) provides those limits.” 

MaineToday Media Washington Bureau Chief Jonathan Riskind can be contacted at 791-6280 or at:

[email protected]