Rep. Sheehan: Key Committee to Consider Funeral Civility Act

Legislative Spotlight by Taxpayer Association of Oregon

Oregon’s Senate Judiciary Committee has agreed to hold a hearing on a bill proposed last session that would protect grieving families from rogue protestors intent on crashing military funerals and other memorial services.  The move comes at the urging of Rep. Patrick Sheehan, who co-authored the Funeral Civility Act last session, helped guide it through House passage (55-3), only to see it denied Senate consideration.

“This is a great step forward on an important bill,” said Sheehan. “There’s still a lot of work to be done before the next session, but I believe that protecting grieving Oregonian families is worth the fight.”

According to Sheehan, questions over whether his bill violated free speech as strictly defined by Oregon’s constitution ultimately shelved his bill as the Senate raced to complete its own legislative priorities at the end of the 2011 session.

Sheehan acknowledge that Oregon has the strongest free speech protections in the country, but said the challenge of crafting a bill that meets constitutional muster shouldn’t prevent lawmakers from doing their job.

“The Senate Judiciary Committee has a legitimate concern that members of Westboro Baptist Church will contest the constitutionality of whatever bill we pass, and Oregon will end up paying their attorney fees,” said Sheehan.  “But if we operate out of fear regarding every law that raises constitutional questions, we’ll fail to pass meaningful legislation.”

Westboro Baptist Church drew national attention in the past year for protesting at the funerals of military service men and women, sparking numerous states to consider measures similar to that proposed by Sheehan.

“As lawmakers, our job is to create a framework for the society in which we want to live. We were elected to represent the people. They’re screaming for this. We need to be brave enough to do our job and let the judges do theirs,” Sheehan continued.

Modeled off a New York State proposal, the Funeral Civility Act allows citizens to rent public space for certain purpose and establishes a 400 foot zone of protection between them and protestors, among other things.

In addition to drafting a final version of his bill for the next session, Sheehan is currently working behind the scenes to line up testimony in its support.  The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is already scheduled to appear in opposition to the measure.

“Most everyone agrees the Funeral Civility Act is a good idea. It’s a matter of getting it through the Senate Judiciary Committee.  The committee chairman needs to get behind this. We can’t create something that’s constitutionally bullet proof, but I believe we can convince him it’s worth the fight.”

The Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the Funeral Civility Act is scheduled for September 22nd at 1:00 p.m.