U.S. Senator Olympia J. Snowe (R-ME) today joined with a number of colleagues to announce the introduction of a bill to protect military funerals from disruption by outside groups. The bipartisan legislation would amend existing federal laws to help prevent disruptions at military funerals. The Sanctity of Eternal Rest for Veterans, or "SERVE" Act (S.815), defines the time and place for protests at funerals, and it provides clear remedies and increased penalties when conduct at military funeral services is not protected by the First Amendment. Joining Senator Snowe in introducing the measure are Senators Ben Cardin (D-MD), Dan Coats (R-IN), Kent Conrad (D-ND), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), John Hoeven (R-ND), Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), Mike Johanns (R-NE), Mark Kirk (R-IL), Mark Pryor (D-AR), Harry Reid (D-NV), Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), Marco Rubio (R-FL), and Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH).
"Those who fight and die in the service of our country deserve our highest respect. Their families have earned the right to bury their loved ones in peace. The SERVE Act strikes a balance between the sanctity of a funeral service and the right to free speech," said Senator Snowe.
Specifically, the SERVE Act would increase the quiet time before and after military funeral services from 60 minutes to 120 minutes; increase from 150 feet to 300 feet the buffer around a military funeral service and increase from 300 feet to 500 feet the buffer around access routes to a funeral service area; and increase civil penalties on violators.
Snowe noted the measure enhances national security by protecting military recruitment and retention. "Our nation has a vested interest in respecting those who serve in our armed forces. This bill achieves that while respecting the intent of the First Amendment to our Constitution," Snowe said. "I also want to express my appreciation to a constituent of mine, Zach Parker, the high school senior whose commitment to the cause of protecting military funerals from disruption served as great inspiration to me and many others."
"This legislation will protect the families of our fallen soldiers and help preserve the dignity of military funerals from those who wish to disrupt and cause pain and suffering," said Senator Cardin. "I believe this bill provides the appropriate language called for in the Supreme Court decision and provides the very necessary protections for our fallen heroes and their families so they can mourn in peace."
"It is our duty as Americans to respect, honor and provide compassion to our troops and military families who have paid the ultimate sacrifice for our country," said Senator Coats. "This legislation protects both military families during their grieving and the right to free speech."
"While I am a staunch defender of the Constitution and the freedom of speech, these vicious verbal assaults on grieving families violate their basic right to privacy," Senator Conrad said. "I've been to these services. I've seen the pain and suffering of the families of the fallen. They have every right to lay their loved ones to rest in peace and with dignity. No one should be allowed to take that away from them."
"Our men and women in uniform bravely put everything on the line for our country. It is our duty to provide service members and their families with the support they need while deployed overseas and after they have returned home," said Senator Gillibrand, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. "This common sense legislation will ensure our heroes are buried with the honor and dignity they deserve."
"We need to do everything we can to support the families of our men and women in uniform who have made the ultimate sacrifice in the service of our country," said Senator Hoeven. "This legislation will strengthen their right under the law to grieve the loss of their loved one with the peace and dignity befitting a fallen hero."
"The families of our fallen troops should be able to lay their loved ones to rest with dignity and honor. Though the First Amendment will always protect the rights of all Americans to protest, our legislation strikes a balance between free speech and the respect and honor our military heroes deserve," said Senator Hutchison.
"When one of our nation's heroes dies, respect and honor should be at the forefront," Senator Pryor said. "This bill paves the way to honor their sacrifice."
"The families of those who have fought and died to protect this country have only one chance to bury loved ones who made the ultimate sacrifice. This bill would protect families who deserve the right to mourn without being subjected to the ugly signs and slurs of fanatics," said Senate Majority Leader Reid.
"The men and women of our military give their lives to protect us and American ideals," said Senator Rockefeller. "They put this country above everything else. The least we can do is help make sure that their families have some peace during memorial services to remember lost loved ones and lay fallen soldiers to rest. The SERVE Act helps allow a respectful funeral while also protecting First Amendment rights."
"The men and women of our military who gave the ultimate sacrifice in service to their country deserve to be buried in peace and with honor. I'm proud to support this common sense legislation that honors our nation's heroes," said Senator Rubio.
"For the brave men and women in uniform who make the ultimate sacrifice for our country, and for their families, we owe nothing less than the utmost respect," said Senator Shaheen. "The honor and dignity of a military funeral is part of that respect. The SERVE Act establishes reasonable restrictions on protests at military funerals, while honoring Americans' right to free speech at the same time."
The military support groups and organizations supporting the SERVE Act include the Gold Star Wives of America, the Enlisted Association of the National Guard of the United States, the Marine Corps League, the Military Officers Association of America, the Military Order of the Purple Heart, the Non Commissioned Officers Association, and Veterans of Foreign Wars.
American Veterans: "While AMVETS understands and respects an individual's rights under the First Amendment, we also believe that a family has the right to bury their loved ones in a peaceful environment. AMVETS believes the ""SERVE Act of 2011" will not encroach upon anyone's rights under the First Amendment, but rather add clarifications to current laws, as well as clearly outlining the ramifications of breaking said laws."
Gold Star Wives of America, Inc: "Several of our members have been forced to endure these unseemly, irreverent protests at the funerals of their beloved fallen spouse. Losing a beloved husband or wife is traumatic enough without also having to endure these protestors and their nasty signs and obnoxious behavior. We fully support the proposed Sanctity of Eternal Rest for Veterans Act and we are grateful that you have proposed this legislation."
Military Order of the Purple Heart: "The Military Order of the Purple Heart totally agrees with Senator Snowe that the families of our military should only have to deal with the burial of their fallen loved one and not with protestors who would intrude upon this most solemn occasion."
Non Commissioned Officers Association: "The disruption and protest rallies targeting military funerals dishonors the military service of those whose uniformed service has guaranteed the freedoms enjoyed by all citizens. The proposed legislation further correctly asserts that such demonstrations negatively impact the recruitment of people by the Armed Forces and militia employed in service to the United States. The Non Commissioned Officers Association strongly supports your legislation that will ensure the privacy and dignity of military funerals."
Veterans of Foreign Wars: " the VFW fully supports legislative and community efforts to ensure the right to free speech does not trump a family's right to mourn in private. Those who would use the First Amendment as both a shield and a sword need to have limits on such abuse. Thank you, on behalf of all 2.1 million members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States and our Auxiliaries, for stepping forward and leading the charge."
BACKGROUND: The recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in Snyder v Phelps involving the Snyder family and the Westboro Baptist Church underscored the need for more definitive language in federal law guiding when and where disruptions at military funerals can take place, while still respecting the ability of a family to lay a lost loved one to rest.