It’s a sad day when Utah legislators deem it necessary to deliberate a bill that appears to limit citizens’ First Amendment rights. A government shouldn’t have to microlegislate. Laws shouldn’t have to enforce a sense of decency and decorum where both should be implied. But it is equally disconcerting to see some citizens are incapable of exercising their rights responsibly.
A House committee favorably passed a bill Wednesday that would force protestors to keep their distance from mourners at military funerals. The bill is aimed mainly at members of a Kansas-based fundamentalist church who threatened last year to protest at the funeral of Adam Galvez, a Salt Lake City Marine who was killed in Iraq. The group claims God is punishing service members abroad for their country’s tolerance of homosexuality, and has a record of appearing at military funerals across the nation holding protest signs, saying, “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.”
Fortunately, the group changed their minds. Galvez’s friends and family weren’t subject to the protestors’ vitriolic rhetoric during their time of grief. These church members hold no personal bitterness towards Galvez or his family; they just can’t resist the urge to call as much attention as possible to their cause. The group is unable – unwilling even – to distinguish between the politicians they truly oppose and the men and women who honorably answered their nation’s call.
Mature individuals should have the civility to allow people to bury their loved ones with peace and dignity, but this group flouts all reason and civility. Their bellows and misconduct drowns out any message they hope to convey to the public. Lawmakers are justified in protecting mourners from any group like this one.
Considering a bill that even appears to curtail the First Amendment should be caution enough, and Rep. Ron Bigelow, R-West Valley City, understands that. The First Amendment grants us freedom of religion, freedom of speech and press and “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” Individuals’ right to protest is a privilege of great importance. But a close examination of the bill shows that it does not trump the rights granted by the Bill of Rights.
No where in the bill does it forbid groups the right to assemble and protest; it only requires they keep 200 feet from the service and cease protesting at least an hour before the service begins. It doesn’t censor the protestors’ message; it only encourages them to exercise discretion when they appear to lack any.