***The following is a letter that I sent to my US Congressman, Dr. Ron Paul, TX-14. It describes the absurdity of how government "protection" has branded me (and so many of my fellow Texans) as criminals. While Dr. Paul is a federal congressman and does not stand in a position to change the matter any more than you or I, he is a citizen of Brazoria County, TX...and is subject to this law, just like you and I.***
I'm writing to you because I've discovered something very frightening while researching the “Funeral Protest Ban” that has been in the news lately. While I certainly don't agree with the practice of protesting anyone's funeral, I disagree with using the force of law to limit the freedom of expression of political, philosophical, or religious opinion even more.
Upon learning that the city of Sweeny had brought up the idea of banning funeral protests, following in the footsteps of the city of Brazoria, I tried further to find a copy of the actual text of the ordinance. Instead, what I found was Section 42.055 of the Texas Penal Code.
I did, indeed, find it rather frightening that the city council members of Brazoria County's various municipal governments felt the need to pass such local ordinances, considering that there has already been a state law in existence for several years that carries an even stiffer penalty. That would suggest that our city governments are not versed in criminal law well enough to be writing them, if they're unaware that they already exist!
What I found even more frightening, however, was the manner in which the state law was written. In order to “cover all the bases”, it had to provide a very wide net, as to prevent people from using loopholes in the law to get around such protest bans. By doing this, they turn everyday people into criminals...often, these people don't even know it!
It's no secret that anti-protest laws centered around funeral services were written and passed to protect the already-grieving families of dead US servicemen from Fred Phelps and his ilk. I know of no other instance in my 32 years in this nation, when anyone has ever protested a funeral prior to his sickening publicity stunts.
While I don't make it a habit to advertise my “military service” (or rather, “lack thereof”...I was thrown out of the Marine Corps under an “Entry Level Separation” 14 days after reaching MCRD San Diego for failing to disclose a juvenile arrest on my enlistment application), I do remember the oath that I and every other enlisted man was required to swear prior to joining. I, like so many of my friends and relatives, stood before a flag along with many of our fellow countrymen and swore an oath to “support and defend”. Last time I checked, our first amendment was written to ensure that speech critical of our national affairs could never be criminalized.
My grandfather (Vivian A. Rhodes, US Army) trekked across Europe and got shot at by men living under threat of death for publicly expressing disagreement with their leaders, and did so because he was told that failure would lead to our country being in the same shape. My uncle (Dusty M. Rhodes, US Army) was drafted and sent to Vietnam, and undoubtedly had to endure many unkind words upon his return, as so many soldiers of his time did. At the age of 12, I had the chance to visit Washington D.C. with another uncle (Nick Rhodes, US Army), and saw the Vietnam War Memorial in person. What is etched in my mind from my DC experience was not necessarily the sheer number of names on those granite walls, but seeing the faces of those who visited to remember their fallen...and knowing that for every name on that wall, there are many who loved them. These facts are not lost with me, when I consider the moral right to peace amongst a grieving family vs. the legal right to express an opinion in public.
Sadly, I can't tell what frightens me the most, if it's the illegality of expressing a public opinion about politics or religion within one hour and one thousand feet of a funeral or a memorial service, or the fact that just about everything has been thrown into this law to ensure that no one is able to circumvent it.
My father owns a house in Angleton, as well as a machine shop on Hwy 288B, and both are literally right around the corner from the Angleton cemetery...which makes driving within 1,000 feet of a funeral service not exactly an uncommon occurrence for either of us.
A while back, during your son Rand's congressional campaign, I attended a fund raiser for him in Lake Jackson. I was honored to meet both of you, and I enjoyed being able to listen to my employer and Ronnie Jr. joke around over a couple of beers. I was also privileged enough to meet Mr. Tory Watson, the man who designed quite a bit of your campaign marketing material, and was given one of the smaller “Vote for Ron Paul” placards. It has been displayed on the dashboard of my jeep for so long that the color has since faded off!
That placard, ironically, has turned me into a criminal in the state of Texas, due to section 42.055 of the state penal code. As “repeated” driving would constitute driving more than once, and I was most certainly displaying that placard, I became a Class B Misdemeanor criminal for being a pallbearer when my grandmother's sister was buried. Since the penal statute is so over-reaching, anyone attending that funeral with so much as a bumper sticker was criminalized.
That law was written to protect the families of dead servicemen, and I think we more than qualify as such a family. More importantly, this law applies to all Texans, regardless of the chosen employment paths our relatives may take. While “protecting” was its intention, criminalization of many was its end result.
I cannot drive to the gas station from my father's house and back, within one hour prior to or following a funeral service, without violating the law, because there is a piece of paper sitting on my dashboard. I cannot park my vehicle at my father's shop and sit in it while I wait for him to get there within an hour of a funeral service, as this also violates the statute.
I work on Plantation Drive in Clute, almost directly across the street from your F.R.E.E. building. As I'm sure you're aware, there is a very large cemetery located on the corner of Plantation and Dixie, near a whole slew of fast food restaurants where many working men and women get their lunches every day. It is not an uncommon occurrence for me to wait for the traffic of a funeral procession to clear before going to pick up my own lunch, which also places me in a position of criminal liability. As well as myself, the law is so broad as to include anyone who might drive past the cemetery and back while picking up their lunch, if they are simply listening to the car stereo...regardless of whether it actually “disrupts” the funeral! I'm not absolutely certain of the distance between the cemetery and Brazoswood High School's marching band practice area, but I'd hate to think that a memorial service had created criminals out of a bunch of high school kids!
While these may be considered a “stretch” of the law's application, the employees of the Little Caesar's pizza restaurant down the street from us are certainly committing the crime of “picketing” on a regular basis, as part of their employee duties require them to stand between the roadway and the parking lot displaying a sign reading “Hot & Ready! $5.99!” when business gets slow.
All of this, of course, illustrates the idea that a government with authority, fueled by the emotional support of a majority mob, can create a criminal out of just about anyone...even when they don't intend to!
Lest we forget, these laws were written to protect the families of US servicemen from the Westboro Baptist Church. While the publicly-stated views of this organization are hate-filled anti-homosexuality rants, they are often displayed in public at locations so far removed from actual funeral services that they are physically incapable of actually disrupting anything...much like your car stereo, when you drive down the road to pick up your lunch. In fact, in the Snyder case, where the Supreme Court ruled Westboro's public expression to be constitutionally protected, Mr. Snyder was barely able to even see the Westboro bunch in the funeral procession and had no idea who they were until the day after his son's funeral.
I find it completely absurd that we should outlaw driving down the street, parking our cars, displaying bumperstickers, et cetera in the name of protecting our emotional well-being. I'm certain that no reasonable jury would ever convict a person for engaging in the acts I've described above, and I'd like to think that our police officers have enough common sense and self-control to not arrest someone for picking up that $5 footlong and having the audacity to listen to the radio on his way to and from Subway. However, the statute does in fact make these actions a crime, and that crime is potentially punishable by a $2,000 fine and a six-month stint in the county lockup.
I'm at a loss for answers, as I know this law will never be repealed without a Supreme Court decision, and I'm in no mood to become a “test case”. Any politician with enough intestinal fortitude to speak out against this law will instantly be branded as a person who “does not support the troops”, just as I have been for speaking out against it in our local newspaper. Things like that don't typically make good soundbites for those seeking election, so it will never happen.
I pray for this nation. I'm saddened by what it has become. Emotion has overtaken this nation by shoving reason and rationality out of the way, and turned it into a lynch-mob atmosphere. Our legislators at all levels feed from this, as if they're living out the real-life political equivalent of a professional wrestling show. There's a new boogieman hiding around every corner, and our response is always “Make it illegal!”. I'm beginning to wonder if there's any hope for us left.
Your supporter, constituent, and countryman,