BALLSTON SPA -- Officials in Saratoga County are considering the adoption of a local law that could limit protests at military funerals in the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that declared such protests constitutionally protected free speech.
Supervisors who sit on the county's veterans committee discussed the idea of imposing limits for the first time at a meeting on Monday, just over a month after justices ruled that protesters could picket at military funerals but that local governments could impose "reasonable" restrictions on such displays.
No action was taken at the meeting, but supervisors who sit on the committee seemed favorable to the idea and agreed to collect more information in anticipation of taking up the issue again in May.
"To think that after you've given the ultimate sacrifice that people can't respect your family during their time of sorrow is just amazing," said Clifton Park Supervisor Phil Barrett, who called such protests "infuriating."
Local officials are particularly interested in providing protections in Saratoga County because it is home to the Gerald B. Solomon Saratoga National Cemetery, a 351-acre federal cemetery for veterans in Saratoga.
A federal law, the Respect for America's Fallen Heroes Act, already bars protesters from demonstrating within 300 feet of national cemetery entrances an hour before or after the funeral, and all religious services enjoy a 100-foot buffer from protests under existing state law.
County officials say they may want to strengthen those standards, however.
Mary Ann Johnson, the chairwoman of the county's veterans committee, said she would like to see protesters kept back at least 500 feet.
"You want to have protection in case it's ever needed," she said.
Saratoga County is just the latest local government to react to the court ruling, which centered on a case against the Topeka, Kan.-based Westboro Baptist Church.
The church has protested military funerals across the country as a way to amplify their objections again homosexuality. The father of a 20-year-old Maryland Marine filed for damages against the church after its members protested his son's funeral in 2006.
The justices' 8-1 ruling allows local governments to pass limitations because of a "compelling interest" to protect families and friends from protests.
Nearly a dozen counties in New York have now introduced or are in some stage of bringing a law before their legislative bodies that would put limitations on protests at military funerals, according to a spokesman for the New York State Association of Counties.
Two counties, Nassau and Suffolk, adopted laws limiting protests at military funerals last year.
Warren County supervisors are among those looking to adopt such a law. If approved, the proposal would create a 750-foot buffer at military funerals.
The Board of Supervisors is scheduled to set a public hearing at its meeting on April 15 that would set the stage for its possible adoption in May. If adopted, it would go into effect after being certified by the state, a process that could take only a matter of days.
John Rymph, the chairman of the Washington County Board of Supervisors, said the idea of adopting a local law in Washington County has also been mentioned.
Rymph said he was not aware of any specific plans to put forward such a measure but that "if other counties are doing it we may not be doing our duty if we don't at least look at it."
The state Senate also approved a bill in March that would require protesters to remain 500 to 2,500 feet back from any military funeral, wake, burial or procession.
The proposal, which is now being considered by the state Assembly, would also require protesters to get a permit from the Division of Military and Naval Affairs and post a bond of $5,000 to $25,000.
The bond could be used to levy civil fines for breaking the protest rules. Misdemeanor charges could also be filed against anyone who breaks the limitations, according to the state proposal.
If approved, the state law could potentially override any measure adopted by counties in New York.
Warren, Washington and Saratoga counties have seen nine military members die in combat- and non-combat related deaths since 2003.
The Westboro Baptist Church has threatened to protest at some of the funerals, but no demonstrations have materialized.