The following Op-Ed was written by Assemblyman Brian Curran, R-Lynbrook.
This past Memorial Day Weekend, we took time to recognize and remember our military service men and women who died in the defense of this country. With each wreath that was laid, with each flag that was waived, we honored their ultimate sacrifice.
Taking time to pay respect to our fallen military heroes is a time-honored tradition in our country and considered by many to be an obligation of an unpayable debt owed. There is no more of a solemn occasion for that respect to be paid than at a funeral for a military serviceperson who has died in the service of the United States of America while defending the ideals of freedom, liberty and democracy.
Whereas this respect flows naturally for most, there are, unfortunately, a few individuals and organizations in this country who attend the military funeral of a killed soldier not to mourn the death, but rather to protest the event. One such group is the Westboro Baptist Church, whose congregants routinely organize protests at military funerals throughout the United States. Such protests are meant to not only convey the group's opposition to a given military action by the United States but also meant to demean and denigrate the funeral service, the fallen solider and the grieving family.
Too many of us have seen the television footage of these military funeral protests on the nightly news. Our collective hearts break for the families of the serviceperson who must escort the casket of their loved one and our hero past these individuals who proudly hold signs that read “Pray For More Dead Soldiers”, “God Hates America” and “Sin and Shame Not Pride.”
Recently, the Westboro Baptist Church, a so-called religious organization that is located in Topeka, Kan., organized a demonstration at the funeral of Cpl. Kevin White, which was being held in Westfield, N.Y. In advance of the funeral, Westboro
Baptist issued a news release that included the following statements: "God hates America and is killing our troops in his wrath" and "military funerals have become pagan orgies of idolatrous blasphemy, where they pray to dunghill gods of Sodom & play taps to a fallen fool." The news release proudly concludes with the brief message "Thank God for IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices)."
To the overwhelming majority of Americans, including myself, the actions and statements of individuals and organizations who protest military funerals is disgraceful and repulsive. Their very actions seem to be contrary to the natural conscience, decency and patriotism of every American. But as Westboro Baptist Church proudly, although ironically, declared in its news release that Cpl. White gave his life for the constitutional right of Westboro Baptist Church to engage in this abhorrent activity.
Unfortunately, Westboro Baptist Church is correct on this point. The greatest pillar
of our country's foundation is the right of freedom of speech of every individual and
organization. And although said constitutional right is not limitless, the vile actions of Westboro Baptist Church and organizations like it at military funerals would be protected under our First Amendment right of free speech.
But guaranteeing the First Amendment rights of Westboro Baptist Church should not be our only concern on this issue. As a nation which currently has over 1.5 million men and women serving in its Armed Forces, we should be compelled by our national interest to protect the family and friends of deceased military personnel while mourning at funeral services.
Thankfully, the United States Supreme Court agreed and issued a recent decision in the action of Synder v. Phelps in which the Court not only acknowledged the First Amendment right of protestors at funerals but also recognized the compelling interest of our nation in shielding the family and friends of a deceased serviceperson while mourning.
In New York, we in the Legislature are seizing upon the opportunity provided by
the Supreme Court's recent decision in Synder to pass legislation that will regulate
these protests within New York state and provide the grieving family with the utmost protection and privacy allowed under the new legal precedent.
Currently, I am co- sponsoring two bills in the New York state Assembly that addresses this very issue. The first being Assembly Bill # 07697, which authorizes municipalities to create a permit system for demonstrations occurring in the vicinity of a wake, funeral, burial or memorial service. The second being Assembly Bill # 7698, which extends the buffer zone regarding criminal interference with a funeral, burial or memorial service from 100 feet to 300 hundred feet.
On June 6th, I proudly voted in favor of both Assembly Bill #07697 and Assembly Bill #7698. Both bills passed overwhelming with only one dissenting vote to each. However, this is just the first step in a long process to pass these two bills into law. So we all must continue to apply pressure on our elected state officials and Gov. Andrew Cuomo until these bills become law and our fallen soldiers are allowed to be laid to rest with dignity.
Before ending, I think it is appropriate to tell you a little about Cpl. Kevin White,
whose funeral the Westboro Baptist Church chose to protest. Cpl. White was an Army infantryman. He had entered the service after graduating from New York Westfield Academy and Central School in 2006 and was an Iraqi War veteran before serving in Afghanistan. On May 2, 2011, Cpl. White was killed when his unit was struck with an improvised explosive device while on patrol east of Kabul, Afghanistan, along the Pakistani border. Cpl. White was 22 years old when he was killed fighting for this country.
For the past 235 years, United States servicemen and women, like Cpl. White, have stood watch over this country and protected us and our way life. Although rare, there have been times in our history that our soldiers have needed our help and our protection. This is one of those rare occasions. Let us not fail them.