HEBRON | A proposed ordinance dealing with protests at funerals drew a brief protest before it was approved Tuesday by the Hebron Town Council.
Councilman Travis Gearhart said he brought the ordinance to the council at a recent workshop. Modeled on an ordinance in Manchester, Minn., it states protesters have to stay at least 300 feet from the site of any funeral or burial service. The restriction applies from one hour before the service to one hour after it.
A Valparaiso man, who said he was invited to the meeting by a local religious group, asked why the protests weren't banned everywhere else and whether it was an infringement on the constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech.
Town Attorney Ted Fitzgerald said the ordinance doesn't ban the protests. People can still gather and have their say for or against something, and they are allowed to protest along the route of a funeral.
The Manchester ordinance was upheld in federal appeals court, which cited a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that reasonable restrictions, similar to those applied to abortion clinics, are allowed to protect the rights of people to grieve, Fitzgerald said.
Gearhart said he posted the intent to introduce the ordinance on Facebook this past week inviting people to attend the meeting, and he was surprised to see it draw protests, some of them obscene and hateful, from all over the country. A couple of extra police were on duty at the meeting, but the discussion remained confined to two people.
One resident asked what the penalty would be for violating the ordinance because it is not specified in the ordinance.
Councilman Don Ensign said the violators could be arrested, but no one seemed to know what penalty could be imposed.
Gearhart, who is the council's liaison to the Police Department, said he would suggest anyone violating it simply be escorted to the 300-foot limit and not arrested.
Fitzgerald said the penalty is an issue the council will have to consider. He hopes to have something addressing that at the council's April meeting after talking to the Porter County prosecutor's office, which will deal with any violations of the ordinance in court.
The town has not had any funeral protests, but there have been some in the area and the town of Porter is considering a similar move.