Photo: Gayle Deja-Schultz meets with the sophomore class to answer questions about the bill writing process.
One person can make a difference
by Lynn Meredith
Sugar Grove—In the fall of 2010, 17 students in NIU Professor Jack King’s Sociology 392: Organizing for Social Change class sat brain-storming ideas for a class project. The assignment was to find a social cause and recommend ways to make improvements. Gayle Deja-Schultz from Sugar Grove, a returning adult student in that class, made that project into more than a classroom exercise. She turned the project into House Bill 180, a new law that will affect countless people in Illinois, and she is inspiring students at other schools to do the same.
She and a fellow student, both with husbands who were veterans, heard that Westboro Baptist Church was going to protest at the funeral of a fallen soldier returning home to Plainfield, Ill. from Afghanistan. They hit on the idea to make changes to the existing legislation that required protestors to keep a 200-foot distance for a half an hour before and after a funeral.
Westboro Baptist Church from Kansas had made national headlines and prompted states, including Illinois, to create laws to curtail protests at funerals. The group traveled across the country to protest about social issues unrelated to the person being laid to rest.
“They spend nearly $1 million a year; they are really well-funded,” Deja-Schultz said. “They are not out there protesting that soldier. They are strictly doing it for shock value.”
The class ended shortly after the project was due, but Deja-Schultz decided to keep the idea in motion. She talked with Representative Kay Hatcher, for whom she had interned, about making the bill more strict than the one passed in 2006.
She researched Illinois state law, as well as laws in other states. She found that Illinois had the lowest distance requirement to stay back from a funeral. She wrote the bill and asked Hatcher to take it to Springfield.
“I was delighted to take their good idea to the legislature,” Hatcher said. “We vetted it from several angles. If you can craft a bill that appeals to someone from (urban areas, rural areas, downstate, Chicago), it has to be a good piece of legislation.”
The new law was filed in January 2011, and became House Bill 180. It required protestors to stay back 1,000 feet from the funeral for one hour before and after the services.
Two weeks after the filing, an event happened that gave the bill the push it needed: Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona was shot and the Westboro church was planning to protest at the funeral of the 7-year-old girl who was also shot that day. When Arizona, in one day, wrote a law to stop the protest, Illinois was not far behind.
Before going to the House, Bill 180 had to go through committee. Deja-Schultz spoke to the legislative committee in February 2011. It passed that day. Then the bill unanimously passed the House.
“I believe everybody has the right to mourn in peace without protesters out there. Even if it was a criminal that was being buried, it’s not the family’s fault, and in particular for our military and a 7-year old girl,” she told the Rules Committee.
With 30 state representatives, 15 senators, the Illinois Association of Funeral Directors, and the Illinois Association of Police behind it, the law went on to the Senate. It encountered opposition from cemetery unions who said it would impede their right to strike at their workplace. The parties worked out a compromise that added 100 feet further distance, or 300 feet back from the funeral for an hour before and after services. That was a long way from the 1,000 feet the bill originally called for.
Bill 180 was signed into law Aug. 14, 2011, but its ripple effect continues. The Illinois Math and Science Academy (IMSA), partially inspired by the work of Deja-Schultz, launched the EnACT program for its sophomore class where students create and potentially pass a bill on a topic of their choice.
Deja-Schultz, along with Hatcher and King, were asked to speak to 250 IMSA sophomores last week. They led round-table discussions about the bill-writing process and gave students feedback on ideas for new laws.
“When all their ideas are gelled into something, I will analyze their ideas,” Hatcher said. “I want them to learn that any single person in this state can change this state, and as young people to understand the ripple effect of any piece of legislation. I have real respect for what IMSA’s doing with this project. They are creating leaders of tomorrow.”
Deja-Schultz said that it has been fun to watch her idea grow and evolve and to have interactions with senators and others in the legislature. She is proud of her achievement.
“I actually wrote a law that impacts every person in the state of Illinois,” she said.