Raleigh, N.C. — A House committee has approved a bill to increase the penalties for those who protest and create disturbances at military funerals.
According to Rep. Kelly Hastings, R-Gaston, the bill is a response to groups such as the Westboro Baptist Church, which creates disturbances at military funerals to promote an anti-gay message.
During discussion in House Judiciary Committee B, concerns were raised about whether the measure would run afoul of the free speech guarantees in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Hastings and committee staff said the bill had been drawn to be similar to federal law and laws in other states.
"I have had (heard) no objection up to this point," Hastings said when asked if groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union had raised concerns about the bill.
According to legislative staff, only four people have been charged under the current version of the law since it took effect in 2006. House Bill 19 expands the buffer areas around military funerals and makes second and third offenses a felony.
"It's a darned shame that we even have to address this," Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union, said, adding that common sense and decency ought to stop such protests.
The measure likely will go to the House floor next, although House leaders could send it to the Appropriations Committee for review. A fiscal note attached to the bill anticipated little additional cost to the state as a result of the measure.