A bill that would double the size of the “buffer zone” between protesters and mourners at an Iowa soldier’s funeral is eligible for debate in the Iowa House. Representative Bobby Kaufmann, a Republican from Wilton, is the bill’s sponsor. “In my opinion, you don’t have a First Amendment right to disrupt a peaceful assembly of those that are gathering to mourn fallen loved ones who died for this country,” Kaufmann says. A 2006 Iowa law forbids protestors from being within 500 feet of a military funeral and Kaufmann’s bill would extend that zone to a thousand feet.
Iowa Department of Veterans Affairs executive director Robert King is also director of the Iowa Veterans Cemetery. “We’ve never dealt with this at the cemetery in the two years that I’ve been there,” King says. “However, I can’t imagine the anguish that a family would endure if we had a bunch of people show up to protest.” The Phelps family from the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, has staged dozens of anti-gay protests at military funerals. Representative Jake Highfill, a Republican from Johnston, says it’s a First Amendment right to protest, even though he’s no fan of the Phelps family.
“I believe there’s a special place in hell for people like this. These people are just the bottom of the barrel,” Highfill says. “But people did not die for this country to just protect the people that are popular. The First Amendment right is not here to protect the popular opinion. It’s there to protect the minority opinion.” Representative Zach Nunn, a Republican from Bondurant, was deployed three times when he was on active duty in the U.S. Air Force. He says burying a fallen soldier is a sacred act and this bill gets his support. “When those who would perpetrate hate speech and attempt to cover it as a First Amendment right, it becomes difficult, then, to be able to support that level of intrusion…into a family suffering’s right to privacy.”
The bill cleared the Iowa House Judiciary Committee last night (Wednesday) by a 21-to-zero vote. The bill would give the families of fallen soldiers the right to sue protesters for “inflicting emotional distress” during a funeral or burial service. Such lawsuits could seek up to 10-thousand dollars for each family member if the bill becomes law. A member of the Phelps family told The Cedar Rapids Gazette “whiny, crybaby legislators” in Iowa were pushing this bill. Six Phelps family members staged a protest at the statehouse in January, but their chanting and singing was drowned out by the engine-revving Patriot Guard Riders. The group of motorcyclists travels the country to provide a buffer zone around the Westboro Baptist protesters wherever they go.