Diverse state legislators affirm respect, support for U.S. soldiers, veterans

 In the wake of a controversial U.S. Supreme Court decision equating demonstrations at or near funerals for American soldiers with free speech, a wave of strong reactions have come from members of the Oklahoma Legislature.

On March 2, in a case involving the controversial Westboro Baptist Church of Kansas, the High Court ruled 8-1 that First Amendment rights trumped the emotional pain a military family faced after a group from the church demonstated at the soldier’s last rites.

Originally, the family of a deceased soldier had been awarded an $11 million civil judgment against the church. That was later reduced to $5 million, but then fully overturned as a result of the Court’s ruling.

One of the strongest reactions came from state Rep. Al McAffrey, an Oklahoma City Democrat and military veteran. In comments sent to CapitolBeatOK, he said: “I strongly disagree with the Supreme Court justices. I understand that they based their ruling on the premise that these protests are a form of protected speech, and while I am a strong supporter of First Amendment rights, I do not condone groups who maliciously abuse this right by demonstrating at funerals of our fallen heroes.”

McAffrey continued: “We should not allow the continued desecration of the memory of our service members and the unnecessary pain that is being inflicted on their families. I hope that my colleagues will join me in voicing our discontent with the ruling.”

McAffrey has filed House Resolution 1010, a measure to denounce the ruling which contends: “The countless service members who have given their lives for this country deserve the respect and admiration of a grateful nation. … It is a disgrace that these protests are going to be allowed to continue. I cannot think of anything more hurtful and disrespectful to the families of our military service members.”

McAffrey is petitioning that his resolution be granted a hearing soon on the House chamber floor and hopes for unanimous adoption by the full body.

Despite the court’s ruling, a Coalgate Republican in the state Senate, Josh Brecheen, has asked for a state Attorney General’s opinion on his legislative proposal – filed before the Court’s decision this week – to double the time and distance limits on protests at military funerals in Oklahoma.

Breecheen said, in a statement provided to CapitolBeatOK, “I don’t believe there will be a problem.  This isn’t a new idea.  We’re just expanding on the original law that was first carried by Senator Mike Mazzei several years ago. I believe the A.G.’s opinion will show this law does not interfere with free speech, but it will give even greater protection to grieving families.”

Present law bans protest an hour before and an hour after funeral services, and states picketers are not allowed closer than 500 feet from where a funeral is held. Brecheen’s Senate Bill 406 would increase the moratorium on picketing to two hours each side of services, and make the distance 1,000 feet. The proposal has gained unanimous support in the state Senate.

Sen. Brecheen believes issues raised in the Westboro case and his legislation are distinct. Breeheen contends: “This case really didn’t impact funeral picketing laws like we already have in Oklahoma.  I believe the Attorney General will concur that this is a Constitutional proposal. There have already been news reports that the Westboro Church intends to quadruple their funeral protests after this ruling.  Since our state is just south of their Kansas headquarters, we need to do everything we can to shield grieving Oklahomans.”

Other legislators have advanced proposals in wake of the decision unrelated to the controversial court case, but intended to affirm the respect Oklahomans across the spectrum have for the nation’s military personnel.

State Rep. Eric Proctor, a Tulsa Democrat, has advanced two measures. His House Bill 1343 would provide means for the children of fallen soldiers from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to secure free college tuition.

Proctor said in his statement sent to CapitolBeatOK:

“We have a moral obligation to ensure that the children of Oklahoma’s fallen heroes are given the opportunity to achieve their dreams. Their fathers and mothers gave everything for our country and we have a duty to help their children get a good start in life.”

Rep. Proctor’s House Bill 1305 would honor Oklahoma’s Medal of Honor recipients in the Capitol rotunda. He said:

“Oklahoma has a strong history of heroism and sacrifice for country and the story of our Medal of Honor recipients must be told. Children today idolize professional athletes and rock stars.  Most children in Oklahoma could tell you who Lebron James or who the characters on the show Jersey Shore are but not many could tell you who Private First Class Albert Schwab was.  Albert Schwab gave his life for his country and was awarded the Medal of Honor during WWII.  Future generations of Oklahomans need to know their stories so that they can know what a true American hero is.”

This week, Proctor sent reporters the words President Harry Truman said when he presented Albert Schwab’s Medal of Honor. The president from Missouri’s town of Independence said then:

“Private First Class Schwab elected to continue his one-man assault despite a diminished supply of fuel for his flamethrower. Cool and indomitable, he moved forward in the face of the direct concentration of hostile fire, relentlessly closed the enemy position and attacked. Although severely wounded by a final vicious blast from the enemy weapon, Private First Class Schwab had succeeded in destroying two highly strategic Japanese gun positions during a critical stage of the operation and, by his dauntless, single-handed efforts, materially furthered the advance of his company.

“His aggressive initiative, outstanding valor and professional skill throughout the bitter conflict sustained and enhanced the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life for his country.”

The two measures from Rep. Proctor will be considered by the full House of Representatives.

Senator Don Barrington, a Lawton Republican, is advancing a measure to provide 100% sales tax exemptions for the surviving spouses of Oklahoma’s disabled veterans. The Senate Finance Committee gave unanimous approval to Barrington’s Senate Bill 46 this past week.

Barrington said: “Providing the sales tax exemption to disabled veterans is our state’s way of honoring and recognizing their tremendous sacrifice to our country.  When these veterans die, it can put a financial burden on their spouses. Although they never fought in a war, these spouses made their own personal sacrifices during their loved ones’ years of service, and I think they have earned and deserve this small financial consideration.”

The measure would exempt from taxes sales up to $6,000 a year such widows or widowers.

Barrington’s proposal has the support of leading Oklahoma organizations who advocate for military veterans. Pete Peterson of the Oklahoma Veterans Council said: “We’ve been pushing for this legislation for years.  When veterans die, their widows are basically left in the cold financially because benefits are cut in half. This exemption, while it won’t come near to making up the difference in lost benefits, will provide some financial relief and allow these individuals to be better able to continue providing for themselves and their families.”

Scott Ellis of the MidAmerican Chapter of Paralyzed Veterans of America thanked Barrington, and said: “We hope the Senate and House give this issue the attention it deserves.  It’s important that these widows be given this relief so they can be able to afford groceries and other necessities.  They deserve that much.”

The state Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that there are roughly 2,533 surviving spouses who would qualify for the proposed exemption.

Information provided to CapitolBeatOK by state legislative staff  projected future lost revenue, if the bill is enacted, of roughly $405,000 for Fiscal Year 2012, and nearly $706,000 in Fiscal Year 2013.