North Charleston passes temporary ordinance prohibiting protests within 300 feet of funerals

North Charleston City Council approved a temporary ordinance to prohibit protests within 300 feet of funerals.

Protesters in both Charleston and North Charleston won’t be allowed within 300 feet of funerals for the nine people killed at Emanuel AME Church.

North Charleston City Council on Wednesday passed an emergency temporary ordinance that will prohibit picketing and other protest activities within 300 feet of those funeral and burial services.

Charleston City Council passed a similar ordinance Tuesday.

North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey said the city decided to take action because two funerals and memorials are scheduled in North Charleston. The ordinance will be in effect for 60 days and will ban picketing and protesting of any “residence, cemetery, funeral home, church, synagogue or other establishment during or within one hour before or one hour after the conducting of a funeral, memorial or burial service at that location.”

“What we have to do is protect people who want to protest and those who find disagreement with that,” Summey said.

He also said members of the Westboro Baptist Church are in town and intend to protest funerals. But City Council didn’t pass the ordinance in reaction to any particular group.

The Southern Poverty Law Center calls the Kansas-based Westboro Baptist “arguably the most obnoxious and rabid hate group in America.” The group is basically a family-based cult, according to the center’s website. It is known for its harsh anti-gay beliefs and the crude signs its members carry at protests.

Messages on the church’s Twitter feed indicate it intends to protest, but the group often does not show up after it says it will.

Phone calls made to the church seeking comment were unsuccessful on Wednesday.

The online “hacktivist” group Anonymous said it will retaliate if church members attend any of the funerals, according to media reports.

And the Facebook group “Human Wall Barrier to protect AME funerals” says it will create a “human, peaceful barrier between the protesters and the families.” So far, 3,000 people have indicated they will attend.

Summey said the city modeled the ordinance on the city of Charleston’s ordinance.

Funerals for Ethel Lance and Sharonda Singleton will be held Thursday in North Charleston.

South Carolina Press Association lawyer Jay Bender said a portion of that ordinance may be unconstitutional because such ordinances must be “content-neutral.” That means they must apply to everyone and are not based on a person’s views on a particular issue. The prohibition on picketing is constitutional because it applies to everyone, Bender said. But the prohibition on protest activities may not be constitutional because it is “content-based.” Some people would be allowed within in 300 feet, just not those deemed protesters.

The North Charleston ordinance defines “other protest activities” as “any action that is disruptive or which is undertaken to disrupt or disturb a funeral, memorial or burial service.”

Victoria Middleton, executive director of the ACLU of South Carolina, said her group also has concerns. “We understand the concern to spare people further pain at this incredibly difficult time when the whole community is mourning, but the ordinances may not be setting a good precedent if they are targeting particular groups.”

Derk VanRaalte, North Charleston’s deputy city attorney, said the penalty for violating the ordinance is up to 30 days in jail and $500. But, he added, with court fees, the amount could jump to $1,072.

VanRaalte said the city did its research and officials think they have drafted a solid ordinance. “Free speech is important,” he said, “but so is the right of these folks to grieve. We’re just trying to make sure we don’t have a fist fight at a funeral.”

Reach Diane Knich at 843-937-5491 or on Twitter at @dianeknich.