Monday, October 02, 2006

Keeping Distance

Most of the last two weeks I was in Canada, with about half of that period in Stratford, Ontario at the Stratford Festival. It used to be called the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, but as the season expanded and more and more plays, musicals, operettas, and related activities were added, the Festival’s movers and shakers decided that retaining “Shakespeare” in the title would sound too restrictive given a repertoire ranging from the ancient Greeks to Shakespeare to 21st century experimental productions.

As it so happens, for the first time in the ten or so years of going to Stratford, none of the five plays I saw were by Shakespeare. Moreover, four of the five – “The Glass Menagerie” (Tennessee Williams), “Don Juan” (Moliere), “Ghosts” (Ibsen), and “The Duchess of Malfi” (John Webster, a late contemporary of Shakespeare) – are “dark plays,” although only the “Duchess” came close to the on-stage body count (eleven “dead”) that The Bard racked up in “Coriolanus.”

That’s the immediate background against which I caught a passing reference on September 28 to a ruling by Federal District Judge Karen Caldwell on September 26 that struck down a Kentucky law that barred protests at the funerals, memorial services, wakes, and burials of deceased members of the military.

The overall context prompting so many states to act is the nation-wide effort mounted by members of the avowedly anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas to attribute the deaths of service members in Iraq and Afghanistan to the judgment of God on an institution (the military and its “don’t ask, don’t tell policy”) and a society that “tolerates” homosexuals.

Should the ruling stand, Kentucky is not the only state that would potentially be affected; more than half of the states as well as the federal government have passed laws restricting picketing at funerals.

The Kentucky law required protesters to maintain a distance of at least 300 feet from those attending the funeral or related service even if the participants cannot see or hear the protesters. Judge Caldwell ruled that in setting the 300 foot exclusion zone, the Kentucky General Assembly had infringed on free speech rights of the general public. She reasoned that such a large exclusion zone could unduly inhibit communications on streets and sidewalks on matters unrelated to the funeral, memorial, wake, or burial.

The choice by the Kentucky General Assembly of a 300 foot separation distance apparently is based on the proviso that requires partisan campaign workers and candidates for elected office to remain at least 300 feet from where voting occurs during elections. Obviously, when it comes to elections, the voters as willing participants need to hear the messages from the candidates and their surrogates in order to make informed choices but without real or imagined coercion at the polls. But when mourning and burying those who have died, the last thing participants in these activities need is the disruption by groups who have no interest in the meaning, purpose, and significance attached to a public ritual of private farewell that has its origin in pre-history and is common to every human civilization.

I fully support the principles of freedom of peaceful assembly, peaceful protest, and free speech. But there are limits, as the Supreme Court itself has acknowledged over the years, and I would look to the creation of a zone of privacy for those mourning the deaths of loved ones under any circumstances. Yes, churches and cemeteries are public places and are thus fora for dissent as well as assent. But if the “sanctity” of the fundamental ritual of democracy – the ballot – warrants 300 feet separation, surely the sanctity of the rituals of death – which is irreversible – warrant the same consideration.

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