BISMARCK, N.D. — Gov. John Hoeven signed legislation yesterday that bars protesters from getting within 300 feet of a funeral. It also bars demonstrations within an hour before and after the funeral.
The measure, H.B. 1040, is the first bill from the 2007 Legislature that Hoeven has signed into law. It won unanimous approval this month in the House and Senate, and took effect when the governor signed it shortly after noon.
North Dakota joins about 30 other states in restricting protest demonstrations at funerals, a nationwide legislative effort prompted by a small group of anti-homosexual Christians who have been picketing military funerals.
For Paul Good Iron, North Dakota's new law restricting protests at funerals is an important sign of respect for the nation's military.
"When they come home, some of them who pay that ultimate price, they will have all the honor and dignity that can be accorded them, without any indignation from outside groups," Good Iron said. He was among a group of military family members and National Guard soldiers who watched the signing ceremony yesterday.
Good Iron and his wife, Harriet, were among the witnesses. Their son, North Dakota Army National Guard Cpl. Nathan Good Iron, was killed last November in Afghanistan when his vehicle was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade.
Paul Good Iron, a Vietnam veteran who served in the Navy from 1969 to 1972, presented a shirt bearing his son's picture to Hoeven after the governor signed the bill.
The law is aimed at a Kansas religious group, the Westboro Baptist Church, whose members tour the country protesting at services for soldiers killed in battle. They believe soldiers' deaths represent God's punishment for the nation's tolerance of homosexuality.
Church members demonstrated last June at separate funerals in Fargo and Bismarck for two National Guardsmen, Spc. Michael Hermanson and Sgt. Travis Van Zoest.
"It's a bittersweet day in North Dakota," said the bill's sponsor, Rep. Bette Grande, R-Fargo. "It's sad that we have to pass legislation of this kind, but the sweetness comes in knowing we lay our loved ones to rest in peace, without the bitterness of others trying to interfere."
Maj. Gen. David Sprynczynatyk, the Guard's commander, said the legislation "sends a very strong message to all of our military members."
"It sends the message that our Legislature, our elected leaders, care about those who fight daily for our freedoms, and for the liberties that we enjoy so much," Sprynczynatyk said.
Congress has also approved legislation restricting protests at military funerals.
In Kentucky, a federal judge blocked enforcement of that state's funeral-protest law last September, concluding that sections of it were unconstitutional restrictions on free speech. A Westboro Baptist Church sympathizer had challenged the 300-foot buffer zone around a funeral site, and a provision that barred protesters from yelling or using a bullhorn.
The North Dakota law includes similar language, including the 300-foot restriction and a prohibition against any "loud singing, playing of music, chanting, whistling, yelling or noisemaking."
Jennifer Ring, the North Dakota and South Dakota director for the American Civil Liberties Union, said she had not reviewed the North Dakota law.
"Basically these things are always restrictions of free speech," Ring said. "The question becomes, Have they limited it in time, place and manner, sufficiently narrowly, so that it is not an undue restriction?"
In other state legislative developments:
The Montana Senate in Helena endorsed legislation on Jan. 24 that would make it a crime to demonstrate near a funeral or memorial service despite concerns it violates free speech and assembly rights. The bill by Sen. Joe Tropila, D-Great Falls, is known as the Right to Grieve in Privacy Act. It would ban picketing within 1,500 feet of funeral sites like churches, mortuaries and cemeteries. The restrictions would go into effect one hour before a service and end one hour after. Violators could be fined up to $1,000 and spend up to a year in jail. Punitive damages and other relief could also be awarded to affected families.
The Washington state House in Olympia has overwhelmingly passed a measure to restrict demonstrations at funeral services, especially those for military personnel. The bill sailed through the House on Jan. 22 on an 89-5 vote, with four representatives excused. Rep. Dan Roach, R-Bonney Lake, sponsored the bill. If approved by the Senate, the measure would require protesters to remain 500 feet or more from funeral processions, the grave site and the funeral home or building where a funeral service is taking place.