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Legislature advances funeral protest law

by jmaloni
Wed, Jun 22nd 2011 12:25 pm

Catchpole-sponsored legislation would set restrictions

Niagara County lawmakers voted Tuesday to schedule a public hearing on a proposed law barring protests at funerals, burials, and wakes within the county, setting the stage for the county to join a growing number of states, counties, and municipalities around the nation enacting law to curb brazen behavior by odd-ball picketers that have disrupted military funerals in recent years.

The law was drafted in response to suggestions offered up by the U.S. Supreme Court when the court was forced to rule in favor of funeral picketers in March in the Snyder v. Phelps case. Justices indicated that reasonable curbs could be placed on the picketers, but not blanket bans.

CLICK HERE TO WATCH VIDEO OF THE NIAGARA COUNTY LEGISLATURE DEBATING LAW TO RESTRICT FUNERAL PROTESTS

In Snyder v. Phelps, damages had been awarded by a lower court to the family of a dead marine whose funeral was turned into a media circus by members of the Westboro Baptist Church, known for freak-show antics including signs that say "Thank God for Sept. 11," "God Hates (Homosexuals)," and "Pray for More Dead Soldiers."

The law was authored by freshman Legislator Vincent Sandonato, R-LaSalle, who resigned from the Legislature Monday to pursue a law degree full-time. Sandonato, who is also an aide to state Sen. Mark Grisanti, was previously an aide at a major Western New York law firm. Sandonato spent two months examining actions by other New York counties, before adapting a law recently adopted by Wyoming County to suit Niagara County's needs.

"It was the right thing to do," Sandonato said. "I respect the First Amendment, but case law going back to (Supreme Court Justice) Oliver Wendell Holmes says that there are reasonable limits. Protecting the dignity of soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice would seem reasonable."

Because Sandonato resigned from the Legislature Monday, new County Legislator Brittany Catchpole, D-Niagara, offered to take up sponsorship of the law, along with Legislator Wm. Keith McNall, R-Lockport, who, as Administration Committee chairman, is the fourth-ranking member of the Legislature.

"When America's sons and daughters come home from war as the honored dead, we have an obligation to make sure they are, indeed, treated as the honored dead," Catchpole said, in an impassioned plea for her colleagues to schedule the public hearing on the proposed law-- a requirement for any piece of legislation to become law in the county. "Should some despicable stranger turn their funeral into the site of a bizarre political statement, then we, as a society, have failed them."

Catchpole noted that, at 18, she has a personal desire to see the legislation become a reality: many of her classmates from Niagara-Wheatfield High School will be joining the armed forces after graduation.

"Like Legislator Sandonato before me, I feel a debt of honor to them," she said. "Passing this law is a moral imperative. It is a measure of the kind of county this truly is."

Catchpole also scoffed at threats from the New York chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which has gone on the record defending protests at military funerals.

"I understand, too, that the New York Chapter of the ACLU has weighed in against us on this already. Well, that's fine," Catchpole said. "Never has being opposed by the ACLU been a mark of shame. Few groups have been so wrong about so many things for so many years."

Catchpole was blunt in her assessment of her colleagues' choices regarding the proposed law.

"You can stand up for an America where we still believe in right and wrong, in honor and dignity, in respect," she told fellow lawmakers. "Or, you can step aside and let the ACLU and the Westboro Baptist Church radicals tear a few more threads out of the fabric of our society."

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