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Measure would regulate picketing at funerals

A proposed law regulating picketing too close to funerals is on Tuesday's Niagara County Legislature agenda.

It was inspired by a recent Supreme Court decision that such protests are protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution.

The measure was introduced by Legislator Vincent M. Sandonato, R-Niagara Falls, who won't have a chance to vote on it because his resignation takes effect Monday.

However, Legislator Brittany Catchpole, D-Town of Niagara, said she will take over as its sponsor.

Sandonato is resigning in order to leave the area to attend law school.

Protests at funerals are rare -- Sandonato said he hasn't heard of any in Niagara County -- but they became a national issue because of the presence of members of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., at military funerals.

The church members declared that the deaths of American troops are God's judgment on a country that offers rights to homosexuals.

In March, the Supreme Court ruled 8-1 that a protest in 2006 in Westminster, Md., was legal, and the soldier's parents could not sue the church.

"While we can't fault the sponsor's motivation, we know his resolution is unconstitutional," said John A. Curr III, western regional director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, who spent 14 years in the Army.

"Let's not disrespect the memory of our soldiers and their sacrifices by enacting these un-American restrictions on the most fundamental of rights that they defended, one that's so important the Founders made it the First Amendment," said Curr, a combat medic in the 1991 Gulf War.

Sandonato said his brother-in-law is on active Army duty in Afghanistan.

"My family is a huge military family. I hope the resolution brings some comfort to the families of our veterans," Sandonato said.

Catchpole, a high school senior just appointed to the Legislature, said the measure is important to her peers.

"A lot of my friends last year and this year have joined the armed forces," she said. "I don't think there will be any problems passing it in the county."

The vote expected Tuesday would be on a motion to schedule a public hearing on the proposal for July 26.

The proposed law bans picketing within 1,000 feet of a church, cemetery or mortuary within an hour before or an hour after a funeral. A violation would be a misdemeanor punishable by a year in jail or a $1,000 fine.

According to the Supreme Court decision, the Westboro protesters were outside a 1,000-foot limit set by police.

"We're not banning anything," Sandonato said. "You can still have your free speech."

Curr said New York has had a law since 2008 that prohibits the intentional disruption of religious services by coming within 100 feet.

"There's no evidence the existing law is inadequate," Curr said.

"The language is very vague," Sandonato said. "No one can tell you where 100 feet from the service is." He said it could be defined as the distance from the door of the church or from the actual ceremony.

e-mail: tprohaska@buffnews.com

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