By Patrick B. McGuigan
In the wake of a controversial U.S. Supreme Court decision equating demonstrations at or near funerals for American soldiers with free speech, a wave of strong reactions came from a widely divergent range of elected legislators at the Capitol in Oklahoma City.
On March 2, in a case involving the controversial Westboro Baptist Church of Kansas, the High Court ruled 8-1 that First Amendment rights trumped the emotional pain a military family faced after a group from the church picketed at a soldier’s last rites.
Originally, the family of a deceased soldier had been awarded an $11 million civil judgment against the church. That was later reduced to $5 million, but then fully overturned as a result of the Court’s ruling.
One of the strongest reactions came from state Rep. Al McAffrey, an Oklahoma City Democrat and military veteran. He told The City Sentinel: “I strongly disagree with the Supreme Court justices. I understand that they based their ruling on the premise that these protests are a form of protected speech, and while I am a strong supporter of First Amendment rights, I do not condone groups who maliciously abuse this right by demonstrating at funerals of our fallen heroes.”
McAffrey continued: “We should not allow the continued desecration of the memory of our service members and the unnecessary pain that is being inflicted on their families. I hope that my colleagues will join me in voicing our discontent with the ruling.”
McAffrey filed House Resolution 1010, to denounce the ruling. McAffrey, who represents the core of Oklahoma City and much of The City Sentinel‘s readership, said: “The countless service members who have given their lives for this country deserve the respect and admiration of a grateful nation. … It is a disgrace that these protests are going to be allowed to continue.” McAffrey hopes for consideration soon, and for unanimous adoption.
A Coalgate Republican in the state Senate, Josh Brecheen, has asked for a state Attorney General’s opinion on his legislative proposal – filed before the Court’s decision last week – to double the time and distance limits on protests at military funerals in Oklahoma.
Breecheen said, in a statement provided to The City Sentinel, “I don’t believe there will be a problem. This isn’t a new idea. We’re just expanding on the original law that was first carried by Senator Mike Mazzei several years ago.”
Present law bans protest an hour before and an hour after funeral services, and states picketers are not allowed closer than 500 feet from where a funeral is held. Brecheen’s Senate Bill 406 would increase the moratorium on picketing to two hours each side of services, and make the distance 1,000 feet. The proposal has gained unanimous support in the Senate.
Brecheen believes issues raised in the Westboro case and his legislation are distinct. Breeheen contends: “This case really didn’t impact funeral picketing laws like we already have in Oklahoma. I believe the Attorney General will concur that this is a Constitutional proposal. There have already been news reports that the Westboro Church intends to quadruple their funeral protests after this ruling. Since our state is just south of their Kansas headquarters, we need to do everything we can to shield grieving Oklahomans.”
Other legislators have advanced proposals in wake of the decision unrelated to the controversial case, affirming respect Oklahomans across the spectrum have for U.S. Military personnel.
State Rep. Eric Proctor, a Tulsa Democrat, has advanced two measures. His House Bill 1343 would provide means for the children of fallen soldiers from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to secure free college tuition. Proctor’s House Bill 1305 would honor Oklahoma’s Medal of Honor recipients in the Capitol rotunda. He said:
“Oklahoma has a strong history of heroism and sacrifice for country and the story of our Medal of Honor recipients must be told. Children today idolize professional athletes and rock stars. Most children in Oklahoma could tell you who Lebron James or who the characters on the show Jersey Shore are but not many could tell you who Private First Class Albert Schwab was. Albert Schwab gave his life for his country and was awarded the Medal of Honor during WWII. Future generations of Oklahomans need to know their stories so that they can know what a true American hero is.”
The two measures will be considered by the full House of Representatives.
Senator Don Barrington, a Lawton Republican, is advancing a measure to provide 100% sales tax exemptions for the surviving spouses of Oklahoma’s disabled veterans. The Senate Finance Committee gave unanimous approval to Barrington’s Senate Bill 46 last week.
Barrington said: “Providing the sales tax exemption to disabled veterans is our state’s way of honoring and recognizing their tremendous sacrifice to our country. When these veterans die, it can put a financial burden on their spouses. Although they never fought in a war, these spouses made their own personal sacrifices during their loved ones’ years of service, and I think they have earned and deserve this small financial consideration.”
The measure would exempt from taxes sales up to $6,000 a year such widows or widowers.
Barrington’s proposal has the support of leading Oklahoma organizations who advocate for military veterans.
The state Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that there are roughly 2,533 surviving spouses who would qualify for the proposed exemption. Information provided to The City Sentinel by state legislative staff projected future lost revenue, if the bill is enacted, of roughly $405,000 for Fiscal Year 2012, and nearly $706,000 in Fiscal Year 2013.