QUEENSBURY-As Warren County leaders convened April 15 to consider local laws including a measure to protect the sanctity of funerals, six Chestertown-area veterans talked in the county Supervisors' chambers.
Korean War Veteran Curt Castner gazed at the American flag in the corner of the room.
"I believe in American freedoms and rights of free speech," he said. "But if my son was killed in a conflict, I wouldn't want protesters outside his funeral shouting they were glad he was dead."
In the wake of last month's U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding the right of a Kansas church to hold disruptive anti-gay protests outside military funerals, the Warren County Board of Supervisors is proposing a law that prohibits protests within 750 feet of funerals, funeral processions and burial ceremonies one hour before, during and one hour after they occur.
The board of supervisors voted in favor of the local law, setting a public hearing at 10 a.m. May 20 on the measure.
This county law is more restrictive than a proposed federal Sanctity of Eternal Rest for Veterans Act that would set a minimum distance for protests at 300 feet for funerals and 500 feet for funeral processions - a bill introduced by U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand last week.
"This common sense legislation will ensure our heroes are buried with the honor and dignity they deserve," Gillibrand said in a prepared statement released the day the bill was introduced in the U.S. Senate by a bipartisan group of lawmakers.
The laws were introduced in response to the protests held at military funerals across the nation by the Westboro Baptist Church, whose members say that the deaths of U.S. soldiers are a sign of divine punishment for our nation's tolerance of homosexuality. The church has conducted more than 30,000 demonstrations in 450 cities or more over the last two decades, it is estimated.
Friday, Castner and five other members of Chestertown V.F.W. Post 5513 attended the Warren County Supervisors board meeting to show their support for protecting the sanctity of funerals, and the right of citizens to grieve in peace.
Ron Robert, Commander of the V.F.W. post, said he was troubled by the recent Supreme Court decision, which overturned a lower court decision granting a multi-million-dollar award to a man who sued the Westboro church after they held a protest at the funeral of his son, a U.S. Marine killed in Iraq.
"The Supreme Court decision was unfortunate, but you can't argue with them upholding the principle of freedom of speech," he said. "It's good, however, that local towns and counties can pass restrictions like this on funeral protests."
World War II veteran Lewis Wentworth agreed, noting that the Patriot Guard Riders, a motorcyclists' group that routinely shields military funerals from such protests, had locally provided a valued and thoughtful service in protecting the rights of those grieving, while showing support for soldiers who sacrificed their lives for freedom.
At a 2009 funeral held in Chestertown for U.S. Army soldier Jeremiah Monroe, who was killed in Afghanistan, a regional chapter of the Patriot Guard Riders had more than a dozen members forming a ceremonial color guard at the funeral as well as escorting Monroe's hearse.
In telling supervisors Friday of area veterans' support for the law, Robert said the heavy turnout of Patriot Guard Riders and veterans in Chestertown had likely dissuaded the Westboro Baptists protesters from disrupting the solemn ceremonies for Monroe.
"People have the right to free speech, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but how about the happiness of our grieving families of soldiers who've sacrificed their lives for these freedoms," he said. "These restrictions you're considering are definitely a step in the right direction."
Minutes later, the unanimous vote of the county supervisors to enact the measure limiting funeral protests was met with robust applause.