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SACRAMENTO, CALIFORNIA — California Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation Monday which makes it a crime to protest a funeral unless the protesters are at least 300 feet (91 meters) away, the governor's office said. The bill is mainly in response to controversial demonstrations by the Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church.
Senate Bill 661, written by Democratic State Senator Ted Lieu, creates limitations on speech to protect grieving families from disruptive protests during funerals. The state joins more than 40 other states and the federal government which have already placed similar restrictions on funeral protests and picketing.
"This carefully crafted measure balances the constitutionally protected right of free speech with limited restrictions on the time, place and manner in which protests at funerals can be held," Lieu said after Brown said the bill. "We've all been disgusted by hateful protests at military funerals, and that should now be reduced or stopped."
The bill was introduced in response to demonstrations by the Westboro Baptist Church, which regularly pickets military funerals to say the death of American soldiers is God's punishment for the country's tolerance of homosexuality. Signs often carry slogans such as, "Thank God for dead soldiers," "Pray for more dead soldiers," "Fags doom nations," and "God hates fag enablers."
The new law makes it a misdemeanor crime for anyone to protest within 300 feet (91 meters) of a funeral beginning one hour prior to the funeral and ending one hour after the conclusion. Those found guilty of the offense face a fine of up to $1,000, imprisonment in a county jail for up to six months, or both.
Margie Phelps, daughter of Fred Phelps, who runs the Westboro Baptist Church, described the bill as unconstitutional but said the church will abide by the restrictions. "It's unconstitutional, and your soldiers are still dying for your proud sin, especially fag marriage," she said. "We will picket the political patriotic pep rallies and huge mobs forming outside these funerals, until they stop. And we'll stay 300 feet away until we get this law and serve chicken."
In March 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Westboro Baptist Church, saying protesters had the right to be where they were because the demonstrations were more than 1,000 feet (304 meters) away from the funeral, on public land, and were not unruly or loud. But the court also re-emphasized the government's ability to restrict speech by time, place, and manner.
The Westboro Baptist Church began picketing funerals in 1998 and initially targeted the funerals of individuals they believed to be homosexual. But the protests later expanded to other funerals and, starting in 2005, the church started protesting at the funerals of military soldiers who died in Iraq and Afghanistan.