Tennessee lawmaker says disorderly conduct bill targeted at 'hateful' funeral protests

NASHVILLE - A Franklin County lawmaker says his bill that increases disorderly conduct penalties for people protesting outside funerals and memorial services is intended to target "hateful" groups like Westboro Baptist Church, which demonstrated this week outside a solider's funeral in Nashville.

"Groups like Westboro are hateful, ugly and misrepresent the Christian faith," Sen. Eric Stewart, D-Belivire, said in a news release. "They disrespect our military families and target our citizens and residents. We must do everything we can to ensure they have no incentive to come here."

Senate Bill 1380, which was recently signed by Gov. Bill Haslam, goes into effect July 1.

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It increases penalties for disorderly conduct within 500 feet of a funeral or memorial service from a Class C to a Class B mismeanor. Instead of facing up to 30 days in jail and a $50 fine, persons convicted under the change will be looking at a sentence of up to six months in jail and/or a maximum of $500 fine.

Topkea, Kan.-based Westboro Baptist Church has achieved national notoriety for its picketing of funerals for slain military service members. The group says on its website that "God Hates America" and is "killing our troops in his wrath."

The protests have been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court as valid under members' First Amendment rights. On its website, the group announced in a news release for an upcoming funeral that the protest is "to be preached in respectful, lawful proximity."

The Tennessean newspaper reported that some 2,000 Tennesseans showed up Monday to confront Westboro protests at the memorial service for Marine Sgt. Kevin Balduf, 27, who was killed in Afghanistan.

Three Westboro members left after ten minutes.

"I've never been prouder to be a Tennessean than I was seeing all the photos and videos of people protecting our fallen soldier," Stewart said. "That's what free speech should look like."