Saratoga County

Military funeral protest rules backed in Saratoga County

The county will seek to regulate protests at military funerals, putting restrictions on actions like

The county will seek to regulate protests at military funerals, putting restrictions on actions like those of a fundamentalist church that has protested at soldiers’ funerals across the country.

The county Veterans Committee on Monday voted to recommend adoption of a new local law that would prohibit protests within two hours before or after a military funeral, or within 500 feet of the cemetery.

It joins a growing list of communities that are considering such restrictions in the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court decision in March that found a Kansas church has the constitutional right to protest such funerals.

It’s a sensitive issue here because the county is home to the Gerald B.H. Solomon Saratoga National Cemetery, one of only three national military cemeteries in upstate New York.

The county’s proposed law matches a proposed federal law that has been introduced in both houses of Congress, but not passed.

“Until they get a federal law through, I think we have to do something to protect our veterans,” said committee member Frank D. Thompson, R-Milton.

A public hearing on the proposal will take place June 15 at the county board rooms in Ballston Spa. The county Board of Supervisors could act after that.

Nassau and Suffolk counties already have laws on the books, and Rensselaer, Warren, Washington and Essex counties are considering such laws in the wake of the Supreme Court decision.

In its ruling, the high court found that while funeral protests are a form of protected free speech, but implied communities may impose “reasonable” restrictions on when and where such protests can occur.

At the federal level, the “Sanctity of Eternal Rest for Veterans Act” has been introduced in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. It is currently pending in committees.

At their meeting Monday in Ballston Spa, supervisors said there’s no guarantee that that bill will be enacted into law, so the county should proceed on its own. “I just don’t think we can sit on our hands and do nothing,” said committee member Arthur Wright, R-Hadley.

To date, there haven’t been any military funeral protests in Saratoga County, but there have been elsewhere in New York.

The concerns are linked to the protests and pickets that have been conducted around the country by the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan. The group has protested at the funerals of soldiers killed in action, asserting their deaths are divine punishment for U.S. social tolerance of gays and lesbians.

The father of one soldier sued the group after a 2006 protest at his son’s funeral in Maryland.

That led to the March 2 Supreme Court decision that found Westboro’s activities were protected free speech.

The Veterans Committee discussed whether to take local action at its April meeting, but postponed a decision.

In an update Monday, county Veterans Services Director Andrew Davis said he’s learned that any public protest at a federal cemetery, including the Saratoga National Cemetery, would require obtaining a permit from the cemetery director.

Committee Chairwoman Mary Ann Johnson, R-Day, initially expressed a preference for leaving action to other levels of government, but voted with the majority to move forward.

“I can’t see every county have its law, and every one a little different,” she said during the discussion.

A county law would also have to be enforced and defended by the county, she said.

Under the proposal passed by the committee, protesters who violated the law would be guilty of a misdemeanor, and could be fined $1,000 or jailed for a year.

Thompson indicated any protest by a group like Westboro Baptist would anger veterans like himself. Thompson is a Vietnam combat veteran.

“I can’t imagine what survivors would feel putting their loved one in the ground and have some idiot come along,” Thompson said.

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