Connecticut Attorney General and US Senate candidate Richard Blumenthal is urging the United States Supreme Court to allow states to protect the privacy of mourners at military funerals. And by doing so, he is defending a state law he supported in 2007 that makes it illegal to disrupt a military (or any other type of) funeral.
Blumenthal has joined several attorneys general from around the country in an amicus brief supporting a Maryland man who sued members of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas after they protested at the funeral of the man’s son who was killed in Iraq back in 2006.
Blumenthal, by getting involved in the legal action, is also trying to protect the Connecticut law passed in 2007. In December, 2006, about eight members of the fundamentalist Westboro Baptist Church traveled all the way to East Lyme to protest the funeral of Army Capt. Jason R. Hamill. Hamill was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq. Departing from their “God Hates F–s” homemade signs they often used, some members of the church held signs that read, “Thank God for IEDS [improvised explosive devices],” “America is Doomed,” and “God is America’s Terror,” according to newspaper reports at the time. The church claims that the deaths of soldiers are punishments from God for the country’s tolerance of gay men and lesbians.
In response to the 2006 Hammill protest, the 2007 state legislature passed and Gov. Rell signed into law, a measure that among other things, effectively banned protests 60 minutes before and 60 minutes after a funeral, burial or memorial service. A violation of the law is a Class A misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in prison, a fine of up to $2,000 or both.
In testimony to a legislative committee on the 2007 Connecticut funeral privacy bill, Blumenthal said, “Our veterans serve and sacrifice—risk and lose their lives—to protect our vital freedoms and national interests. The funeral of a veteran is a significant and solemn event and the family and friends of that veteran are entitled to a peaceful ceremony unmarred by people who seek to make political statements…This measure is made necessary by an extremely small minority who lack common decency, decorum and respect. A funeral is no place or time for their protests. Especially when one of our veterans is laid to rest, a funeral should be sacrosanct.
“While the First Amendment guarantees the right to free speech, our Supreme Court has repeatedly stated that government may place reasonable time, place and manner restrictions on such speech…For example, a local or state agency can require parade organizers obtain a permit but cannot unreasonably deny such permit. I will vigorously defend this law if approved by the General Assembly.” It was approved by the General Assembly and Blumenthal is defending it now by signing on to the brief in the Maryland case.
The issue takes on a particular importance this Memorial Day because of the current political atmosphere. Blumenthal’s embellishments of his military record—detailed in the New York Times and for which he has since apologized—have drawn national attention and added fuel to the fire that is the race for the US Senate. His likely opponent in the general election in November is former pro wrestling mogul Republican Linda McMahon. Able to afford the best hatchet men money can buy, it was the McMahon campaign that provided some of the “opposition research” to the Times for its article.
The fate of the Maryland case is not clear. The father of the soldier who paid the ultimate price asserted that the Kansas church violated his privacy rights by protesting policies that were certainly not initiated by his son. The father was awarded $10 million in 2007. That award was reduced to $5 million. The case then went to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals which struck down the judgment and ruled for the church, saying members have a First Amendment right to exercise free speech.
Blumenthal, as he has done throughout his career, is standing up for those who served their country and the families of these brave men and women who we remember today.