JEFFERSON CITY - A Missouri Senator is sponsoring a bill to make violent vandalism and disruption at a house of worship a crime. The Senate judiciary committee discussed the bill that would make offenders punishable by jail time and fines. No one testified against the bill.
Senate President Pro Tem Rob Mayer, R-Dexter, said he sponsored the bill as a partial reaction to the Westboro Baptist Church's protest during the funeral of 9-year-old Christina Green. Christina was killed during the assasination attempt of U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords. Arizona lawmakers passed similar emergency legislation to prevent a protest at her funeral.
The Missouri legislation would make it illegal to disturb, attempt to disturb or vandalize a house of worship in an attempt to protect places of worship. According to the language in the bill disturb includes, "profane discourse, rude or indecent behavior, or making unreasonable noise."
Mayer said the term "house of worship" includes churches, synagogues, mosques and other private or public buildings. Protests would be prohibited at military monuments, cemeteries, schools and hospitals.
The penalty for disturbing or attempting to disturb a house of worship ranges from a class C to a class A misdemeanor, which can be punishable by a maximum of 15 days to one year in prison. However, vandalism of a religious institution would result in a class D felony, which is punishable by a maximum of four years in prison.
Joe Ortwerth, executive director of Missouri Family Policy Counsel said passing this proposed statute would not attempt to suppress people's freedom of speech.
"Individuals would still have the right to picket outside church if they so choose, to carry signs, to express their sentiments and whatever the subject of the day may be and however they may differ with the sentiments within the church," Ortwerth said.
Mayer said the bill is a preventative measure to secure the safety of religious institutions and allow people to gather and worship peacefully.
"It is something that we need to put in place and make certain that people respect first amendment rights of others as they seek to worship, whether it's churches or synagogues," Mayer said.
Voting on the bill is expected to begin as early as next week.