HELENA - The House endorsed a bill Tuesday that would make it illegal to protest at funerals.
The measure, sponsored by Sen. Joe Tropila, D-Great Falls, already has been approved in the Senate and faces a final vote, scheduled for Wednesday, before moving to the desk of Gov. Brian Schweitzer. The governor has not signaled whether he will sign the bill into the law.
If he does, Montana would join at least 30 other states with similar laws. The laws have been in reaction to the picketing of military funerals by the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan. The church, which has protested in Montana and several other states, says God is killing soldiers because America supports homosexuality.
Known as the Right to Grieve in Privacy Act, the bill would ban picketing within 1,500 feet of funeral sites starting one hour before a service and ending one hour after it.
Violators could be fined up to $1,000 and spend up to a year in jail, and punitive damages also could be awarded to affected families.
Opponents of the bill said it was a violation of free speech. Rep. Roger Koopman, R-Bozeman, said a Marine who had served in Iraq asked him to vote against the bill.
"That's why I'm fighting," Koopman said the Marine told him, "for those freedoms, even when those freedoms aren't very pretty."
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Others said the bill was too broad and could limit other activities, like showing support for a fallen solider at his or her funeral. But efforts to amend the bill to shorten the distance protesters would have to stay from funerals and to clarify what kind of protesting was illegal both were defeated on the House floor.
Proponents of the bill said it was a commonsense way to protect Montanan's right to privacy.
"I can't think of anything that should be more private than a funeral," said Rep. Ken Peterson, R-Billings.
The House voted 65-35 in favor of the bill.
The bill is Senate bill 15.