By Greg Lucas
SACRAMENTO, Calif (Reuters) - California's state Senate approved a bill on Thursday to restrict protests at funerals in a move aimed at limiting the impact of controversial demonstrations like those led by a fringe Kansas-based church against homosexuality.
The measure, unanimously approved by the Democrat-led Senate despite criticism from civil liberties advocates, would require protesters to remain 500 feet away from funeral services. It will now go to the state Assembly for consideration.
Previous legislation aimed at ending funeral protests in California was vetoed last year by Democratic Governor Jerry Brown, who said that such a law violated the free speech protections in the U.S. Constitution.
The measures are a response to the protests by the Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church, a fundamentalist splinter group whose members have gathered at funerals around the nation using explicit signs to protest homosexuality, among other issues.
The bill's sponsor, Senator Ted Lieu, said he believed the latest incarnation addresses the governor's concerns about free speech by cutting the buffer zone in half, from 1,000 feet to 500 feet.
"Since time immemorial, society has respected the dignity and sacredness of putting the dead to rest," Lieu, a Democrat, said in a statement after the bill's passage.
"This bill recognizes the sanctity of funerals by placing reasonable time, place and manner restrictions on disruptive protesters," he added.
But opponents, including the American Civil Liberties Union, said that even a 500-foot buffer zone unfairly restricts free speech.
Members of the Westboro Baptist Church, which has no affiliation with the mainstream Baptist church, espouse a belief that God hates homosexuality and is punishing America for its tolerance of homosexuals.
The splinter group, comprised primarily of Fred Phelps and his extended family, entered the national spotlight in 1998 when it picketed the funeral of Matthew Shepard, a young Wyoming man beaten to death in 1998.
The group's right to conduct such protests has been upheld by the United States Supreme Court. But more than 40 states have placed some form of restrictions on protests at funerals. Ohio, for example, has a 300-foot buffer.
Members of the church most recently picketed the Golden Globe Awards on January 17.
(Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Cynthia Johnston)