The first major bill passed by the Democratic house in Olympia this year violates the First Amendment.
On its face, the bill—which passed the house 89–5 on January 22—seems like good-guy liberal legislation. Aimed at the AIDS Kills Fags Dead crowd, the bill prohibits protests near funerals or burials; near a funeral home during the viewing of a deceased person; near the location of a memorial service; or near a funeral procession, if the person knows that the procession is taking place.
The bill is targeted at cuckoo homophobe Reverend Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church, which is listed as a hate group by the Nazi-trackers at the Southern Poverty Law Center. Phelps's flock organizes protests outside Iraq-war-veteran funerals to make the case that U.S. casualties in Iraq are God's punishment for America's tolerance of gays. No mention of why all those Sharia-following Sunni homophobes are dying in Iraq, too.
Phelps started stalking funerals back in 1998, when his crew descended on the funeral of Matthew Shepard, the gay college student who was murdered and strung up on a fence in Wyoming. About protesting military funerals, Phelps said, "Military funerals are pagan orgies of idolatrous blasphemy where they pray to the dunghill gods of Sodom and play taps to a fallen fool..."
It'd be hard for the straight-but-not-narrow Democratic legislature to come out against this bill; so thankfully, gay legislator Representative Jamie Pedersen (D-43, Capitol Hill, U-District, Wallingford) had the wisdom to call bullshit on this politically correct but ill-conceived ploy.
Banning protests near funeral processions, which can go on for miles, simply gives the government too much power to shut down protests. (Indeed, the ACLU has filed briefs on behalf of Phelps against similar laws in Ohio and Missouri. The ACLU of Washington thinks the Olympia bill is better than those in other states because it focuses on conduct rather than speech, but spokesman Doug Honig adds, "We'll be watching to be sure that it's not implemented in a way that impedes free-speech rights."
"It's a First Amendment issue," Pedersen told me. And he gave a great floor speech denouncing the bill: "For me as a gay man, this message of hate is one that stings deeply... But I am also a civil-rights lawyer who has made a pledge to defend the Constitution. This bill unduly burdens our First Amendment freedoms. If these freedoms protected only popular viewpoints, they would not be necessary. As President Kennedy observed, 'A nation that is afraid to let its people judge truth and falsehood in an open market is afraid of its people.' And so it is with great reluctance that I must vote against this bill."
Unfortunately, Pedersen's colleagues were reluctant to heed his advice. Just two Seattle legislators—Representatives Bob Hasegawa (D-11, South Seattle) and Jim McIntire (D-46, North Seattle)—stood up for the Constitution. The senate, a gleeful Democratic spokeswoman told me, plans to pass the bill on Friday.