WASHINGTON — It didn’t take long at a Senate hearing Wednesday for Sen. Olympia Snowe to pick up additional support and a date for a committee vote for her legislation seeking to protect military funerals from disruptive protests.

Snowe, R-Maine, told members of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee that the Sanctity of Eternal Rest for Veterans (SERVE) Act is needed in the wake of “detestable” protests waged by a fringe church based in Kansas and a U.S. Supreme Court decision in March upholding the Westboro Baptist Church’s free speech rights to stage such protests.

But the High Court’s 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 is scheduled to be voted on by the Veterans’ Affairs Committee on June 29, the committee’s chair, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said after Snowe’s testimony.

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

Snowe’s legislation alters federal law to increase the “quiet time” where protests cannot take place before and after military funeral services from one hour to two hours and also increases the distance at which protesters must stay from services. While current law places a 150-foot boundary around the service itself and 300 feet around access routes to the service, Snowe would up that buffer to 300 feet and 500 feet, respectively. Snowe’s bill also would impose penalties on violators, including up to two years in prison.

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

On hand for Snowe’s testimony was the Maine high school senior who inspired Snowe to introduce the SERVE Act in April. Searsport High School senior Zach Parker took a break Wednesday from final exam week and preparing to graduate to be on hand to see what started as a classroom project turn into the subject of a Senate hearing and a potential new federal law.

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

Parker, prior to the Supreme Court decision, launched a campaign to outlaw any protests at military funerals.

Snowe’s office 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 the Parker’s campaign she promised to take a look at his proposal in light of what was still the pending Supreme Court decision, deciding to go ahead with the legislation once the ruling was released in early March.

The Supreme Court ruled 8-1 in March that First Amendment free speech rights protect the anti-gay protests at military funerals waged nationwide by the small, fringe, Westboro Baptist Church located in Topeka, Kansas. The ruling grew out of the group’s presence at the 2006 funeral in Maryland of Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, 20, who was killed in Iraq.

The church members say that soldiers who are killed is an act of God in retribution for tolerance of gays and lesbians.

The group has carried out a protest in Maine at least once, in 2007 in Portland at the funeral for a soldier who died in Iraq, but also has indicated it would come to Maine on several other occasions and didn’t show up. Maine’s law says that it is a crime to taunt, insult or otherwise accost any person attending a funeral service.

In the Snyder case, the Westboro protesters picketed from a distance of about 1,000 feet.
In 2006, Congress passed the Respect for American’s Fallen Heroes Act, which put in place the current restrictions. The Supreme Court ruling did not seem to negate these types of restrictions.

In addition to Snowe’s legislation, states like Maryland and New York also are looking at overhauling 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 already in place in 43 states. “That law only covered funerals at federally administered cemeteries, which would have excluded the Snyder family – and that is why we provide a uniform zone of protection around civilian as well as federal locations where funerals are taking place,” Snowe said in her testimony before the Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts said in the Supreme Court decision that the protests are “hurtful” and don’t contribute much, if at all, to public discourse. But that still doesn’t mean the protesters can be banned, he said.

“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.