Bonds sought for protests at funerals

State Sen. Lee M. Zeldin of Shirley announces

State Sen. Lee M. Zeldin of Shirley announces the creation of the "Specialist Thomas Wilwerth Military Dignity Act," Saturday, during a news conference at William Floyd High School in Mastic Beach. The legislation prohibits demonstrations, or protests within 2500 feet of military services, funerals or processions. The legislation is named in honor of US Army Spc. Thomas Wilwerth who was killed in action in Iraq during 2006. (March 12, 2011) (Credit: John Dunn)

Local lawmakers called for state legislation Saturday to bar protesters from military funerals unless they posted a bond to cover extra security costs.

The proposal came in the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling this month that upheld a Kansas church's right to demonstrate outside soldiers' funerals.

"Yes, there is a right to free speech in our country," state Sen. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) told a crowd of more than 50 veterans, community members, Gold Star parents and reporters at a news conference in the library of William Floyd High School Saturday afternoon.

"But that must be balanced with the need to protect the victims, our fallen heroes" and their families, he said. "It's that balance that this legislation seeks."

The Spc. Thomas Wilwerth Military Dignity Act would ban protesters from coming within 2,500 feet of military services, funerals and processions unless organizers post a bond to the local municipality to defray security costs associated with the demonstration. Even then, no protesters would be allowed within 500 feet.

Zeldin's legislation will be discussed in the State Senate Monday.

The proposal is named after a 21-year-old Army soldier from Mastic killed by a bomb in Iraq in 2006. Wilwerth graduated from William Floyd in 2003.

"This is terrific that they are using his name," said Wilwerth's father, Terry, 59, of Mastic, who was at the conference. "That's what he was all about, helping his buddies, his brothers."

Members of the Westboro Baptist Church display signs with gay slurs and messages such as "Thank God for dead soldiers." The Topeka, Kan.-based church says America's problems stem from tolerance of homosexuality.

The group did not protest at Wilwerth's funeral but had threatened to picket the funeral of Army First Lt. Joseph J. Theinert in Shelter Island last summer.

Calls to the Westboro Baptist Church seeking comment were not returned Saturday.

"They fight for your freedom. In the process, they get killed," Wilwerth said. "That's how you're going to thank them, by going to their funeral and . . . I just don't get it."

"It's sad that we have to legislate common respect," said Assemb. Dean Murray (R-East Patchogue), who will introduce the bill in the State Assembly.

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Should the Westboro Baptist Church be allowed to protest at military funerals?

Yes, everybody has the right to free speech. No, a military funeral isn't the right place for protests.

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