Update: Legislators vote to ban protests at funerals; church backs off plans to demonstrate at service for 9-year-old

House Speaker Kirk Adams, R-Mesa, conceded that introducing, debating and approving substantive legislation like this in a single day is "unprecedented." (Capitol Media Services file photo by Howard Fischer)

House Speaker Kirk Adams, R-Mesa, conceded that introducing, debating and approving substantive legislation like this in a single day is "unprecedented." (Capitol Media Services file photo by Howard Fischer)

PHOENIX -- Rushing ahead of planned protests, state lawmakers voted Tuesday to ban protests at funerals.

The measure, which Gov. Jan Brewer signed after visiting victims of Saturday's shooting in Tucson, makes it a crime to picket within 300 feet of any home, cemetery, funeral home or house of worship before, during or immediately after a ceremony or burial. Violators could be sentenced to up to six months in jail and a $2,500 fine.

House Speaker Kirk Adams, R-Mesa, conceded that introducing, debating and approving substantive legislation like this in a single day is "unprecedented."

But he noted that members of the Westboro Baptist Church, known for their funeral protests and signs that "God hates fags," plan to picket the funerals of the victims of the killings at a Tucson shopping center. And the first funeral, for Christina-Taylor Green, is set for Thursday.

"We have this vile group coming to protest the funeral of a 9-year-old girl who was just gunned down, claiming that she deserved to die,' Adams said.

"It's disgusting, it's despicable,' he said. "And we're going to ensure that the family could have some peace for a couple of hours while they bury their daughter.'

Brewer called it "the right thing to do."

"I'm fed up with this nonsense, of these people and that behavior,' the governor said. "They can stay a little distance away from people that are mourning and grieving.'

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Phoenix, said the legislation is designed to withstand constitutional challenge on free speech grounds.

She pointed out the measure does not regulate what people can say. State and federal courts have repeatedly voided laws which are based on content.

Nor does it bar picketers.

"It simply regulates the time and the place in which they can do so,' Sinema said.

Shirley Phelps Roper, spokeswoman for the church, said the law won't keep members from coming, just as similar laws in more than 40 other states haven't stopped the protests there.

"These servants of God will be there,' she said. "As for their law ... they will never shut up God and his people until our testimony is done.'

Roper said the 300-foot limit won't interfere with the church's goals.

"We never get anywhere near 300 feet," she said.

"I've already picked my corner," Roper continued. "It's more than 1,000 feet away and I've already conveyed (the location of) that corner to the law enforcement."

Roper brushed aside questions about the propriety of picketing the funeral of a 9-year-old girl.

"God gets to choose who he will make an example of," she said.

"He chose that child," Roper continued. "And they're worshiping her because of the stinking date she was born,' referring to her birth date of Sept. 11, 2001.

However, the church backed off protesting at Christina-Taylor's funeral, agreeing instead to go on the radio (see story below). They still plan to protest at the other funerals.

At the same time, some Tucson organizations are planning a counter-protest of sort of their own. Some are planning to build and wear angel wings, up to 10 feet across, with all of those involved planning a "human blockade' to shield the family from protesters.

One of the organizers, Tucsonan Andrew Gaskins, said he sees the movement as a supportive role for the families rather than a response to the Westboro Baptist Church members.

"We need to ignore them,' Gaskins told a crowd gathered in a city park after dark on Monday. "We need to make this about the loss that their families and our community suffered."

Sen. Paula Aboud, D-Tucson, said she likes that idea, saying she has some First Amendment concerns about passing laws that limit protest. She said the preferable alternative would have been what happens in some small towns in the Midwest where the Rev. Fred Phelps has organized similar protests at the funerals of military war dead.

"People from two to three hours away came and created human chains and protect the family," she said. "These protests were so far away that the family did not even hear the comments.'

Roper had a more focused reason for the plans to picket the funeral of John Roll who was the presiding federal judge in Arizona.

"That federal judge is paying the down payment for this nation, through your federal judiciary lining up across the country and putting us on trial,' she said. "Everyone watched that happen and everybody had a duty to rise up with one voice and say, 'No, this violates our First Amendment.' "

(Andrea Kelly of the Arizona Daily Star contributed to this report.)


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