County eyeing funeral protest ban
By Amy Lavalley Post-Tribune correspondent March 23, 2013 11:50PM
Updated: April 25, 2013 7:06AM
The Porter County Board of Commissioners will consider an ordinance April 2 that would ban protests at funerals.
Similar to one passed in Hebron on March 19 and one being considered by the Porter Town Council on Tuesday, the ordinance is meant to be narrow enough in scope to avoid First Amendment court challenges.
Porter County and Hebron officials said a recent ruling by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis, regarding a case in Manchester, Mo., paved the way for such ordinances, which target protests at military funerals by Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan.
Members of the church have disrupted military funerals across the country, carrying signs that say, “Thank God for 9/11” and claiming military deaths are America’s punishment for its acceptance of homosexuality.
“Under the First Amendment, there’s no question this is going to be as narrowly tailored as it needs to be,” said county attorney Betty Knight. “And it will be consistent with the First Amendment, so free speech will not be suppressed or chilled.”
The county ordinance, though still being drafted, would limit protests within 300 feet of a funeral and burial, as well as one hour before or after those events.
Westboro Baptist Church members protested at the burial of Army Spc. Adam Harting in August 2005 at Heritage Cemetery, said Board of Commissioners President John Evans, R-North. Evans owns the cemetery, and was there that day.
Members of the Patriot Guard blocked off members of the church, and used a recording of “God Bless America” to drown out the hateful things said by church representatives.
“These people, in my opinion, are despicable,” Evans said.
Until the ruling by the appellate court, establishing an ordinance to ban such protests was just too daunting financially for most communities in the face of potential legal challenges by the church.
“It becomes cost deficient. There’s no way you can put up a battle like that,” Evans said, adding the court ruling gave the county and other communities the go-ahead to put together similar ordinances. “That’s what’s given everybody encouragement to keep them out of our communities.”
Don Ensign, president of the Hebron Town Council, said his community hasn’t seen protests by the church, but there was one in Lowell in August 2011.
“It was kind of a preemptive, to make sure it doesn’t happen in our community,” he said, adding the court of appeals ruling gave the council confidence that their ordinance would stand up to a legal challenge.
Still, if someone filed a complaint about one of the ordinances with the Indiana office of the American Civil Liberties Union, “ we would certainly have to take a look at it,” said legal director Ken Falk.
The county’s ordinance, like the others, will be narrowly drafted as a legitimate time, place and manner regulation consistent with the First Amendment so it doesn’t infringe on the right to free speech, Knight said.
“If the First Amendment means anything, it means being able to say the most awful things,” she said.