WASHINGTON – The Senate passed an omnibus veterans affairs bill Wednesday that includes additional restrictions on protests near military funerals and tougher penalties on groups that violate the law.

Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, sponsored the original “Sanctity of Eternal Rest for Veterans” or SERVE Act following a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a case centered on an anti-gay church group that was protesting at military funerals around the country.

The Supreme Court ruled in March 2011 that the Westboro Baptist Church’s protests were protected free speech. But Snowe and other lawmakers wanted to place additional restrictions on when, where and how groups could protest near funerals for military personnel.

Members of the Kansas-based church protested at a funeral in Maine for a soldier killed in Iraq. A student at Searsport High School, Zach Parker, campaigned for a ban on protests at military funerals.

Snowe’s SERVE Act was incorporated into the veterans bill passed by the Senate on Wednesday night. The act would: double the “quiet time” before and after military funeral services to 120 minutes; increase the buffer zone around the funeral service from 300 to 500 feet and around the access point to funerals from 150 to 300 feet; and impose stiffer penalties on violators.

“Our nation has a vested interest in honoring those who serve in our armed forces and this bill achieves that while respecting the intent of the First Amendment to our Constitution,” Snowe said in a statement.

The omnibus bill now heads to the House for consideration. 

Washington Bureau Chief Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at:

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