House votes to restrict funeral demonstrations

By The Associated Press

SANTA FE — A Kansas fundamentalist group’s effort to disrupt the funeral of a New Mexico soldier has prompted lawmakers to pass a bill restricting demonstrations at funerals.

The state House on Thursday unanimously endorsed a measure that curbs demonstrations within 500 feet of a funeral site for an hour before and an hour after a service.

The bill heads next to the Senate, which also would have to approve it before it would reach the governor’s desk for his signature.

The legislation is similar to that already in place in 29 other states, according to the state Department of Veterans Services, which supports it.

The New Mexico measure is called the “Alexander Jordan Funeral Protection Act,” after the soldier whose Rio Rancho funeral in September prompted a demonstration by members of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., who tour the country protesting at military funerals.

The church members say the soldiers’ deaths are a sign that God is punishing the United States for tolerating homosexuality.

At the funeral for Jordan — who died Sept. 10, 2006, of injuries he suffered while on patrol in Iraq — a group of motorcyclists called the Patriot Guard buffered Jordan’s family and friends from the demonstration.

Westboro Baptist Church members planned to protest at an August funeral of Army Sgt. Leroy Segura Jr., 23, of Clovis, but decided not to appear, saying extensive media coverage had already spread their message.

Segura was killed in Iraq in a vehicle accident.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Tom Swisstack, D-Rio Rancho, said the legislation “protects the rights of protesters but at the same time allows for the parents to grieve” during services.

The bill applies to any funerals — not just military funerals — and any demonstrators. The Patriot Guard, for example, would be prohibited from having a noisy demonstration or certain signs.

At the federal level, there already are laws banning demonstrations at military funerals at national and non-federal cemeteries.