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Legislature swiftly passes, Brewer signs bill to restrict funeral protests

Gov. Jan Brewer, seen here at her recent inauguration, focused on the shooting that shook the nation over the weekend. Brewer signed SB1101 Tuesday evening, limiting protests at the upcoming funerals for the shooting victims. (Photo by Evan Wyloge/Arizona Capitol Times)

Gov. Jan Brewer, seen here at her recent inauguration, signed SB1101 Tuesday evening, limiting protests at the upcoming funerals of Saturday's shooting victims. (Photo by Evan Wyloge/Arizona Capitol Times)

To members of a notorious Kansas-based church who are planning to picket the funerals of victims of the shooting rampage in Tucson, Arizona’s government leaders are unanimously sending this message: We don’t want you here.

Gov. Jan Brewer late Tuesday signed into law a bill designed to keep members of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., a football field away from the funerals.

The attack last Saturday killed six people, critically wounded U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and injured a dozen others.

Church members had planned to be outside the Thursday funeral for 9-year-old Christina Green. But the Associated Press is reporting that the church will not be at her funeral; its members will, however, picket the funeral Friday for U.S. District Judge John Roll and at the intersection at which Giffords was wounded.

In a show of unity and compassion, Democrats and Republicans Tuesday afternoon passed a measure to keep the group away from the funerals.

“This bill contains an emergency clause and is therefore effective upon my signature,” Brewer said in a statement released with the signing of the bill. “Such despicable acts of emotional terrorism will not be tolerated in the state of Arizona.”

Members of the Westboro Baptist Church have inflamed emotions at funerals of soldiers killed in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Members have stood near churches and displayed signs with such messages as “Thank God for dead soldiers.”

The church has announced its members would be at the Thursday funeral for Christina Green, a 9-year-old who died in the hail of gunfire.

Lawmakers put aside political differences to stand unified against the church’s plans.

“The first message (the bill) sends is that some things are just right and some things are wrong, and that picketing funerals is wrong,” said Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, a Democrat from Phoenix and an author of the legislation.

“In times of tragedies, we always, I would hope, come together in a different way,” said Senate President Russell Pearce, who earlier described the bill, S1101, as a balancing act between people’s right to protest and respect for families as they grieve the loss of loved ones.

The measure, which passed unanimously in both chambers, would bar protests within 300 feet of a funeral or burial service. The prohibition only applies one hour before or after the service.

Violators would face a Class 1 misdemeanor charge under the bill.

The bill was this session’s very first to be signed into law, which shows how the shooting has already begun to affect politics in Arizona.

To fast-track the bill’s passage, the Senate waived its rules. Without suspending the rules, which require the approval of two-thirds of the chamber’s members, it would have taken at least three days to reach the governor’s desk.

Meanwhile, Sen. Paula Aboud, a Democrat from Tucson, announced that there are plans to create a human shield to act as a barrier between any protesters and the funeral services.

Referring to the church’s members, House Speaker Kirk Adams said: “They have their rights to say what they want to say, as despicable and vile as we may feel that is. That is their First Amendment right, but we also have the right to regulate how and when they do that and that’s all we did today.”

Echoing Pearce’s sentiments, state Rep. Debbie Lesko, the House Majority Whip, said the bill carries a “good balance.”

“It allowed freedom of speech, but it also sets some reasonable, common sense rules,” she said.

The local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union said it’s neutral on the bill.

“We don’t believe that it raises First Amendment concerns at this time. Nonetheless, we will monitor its progress to ensure that that remains the case and that any amendments to the bill remain constitutionally acceptable, as well,” said Anjali Abraham, the group’s public policy director.

Led by Fred Phelps, the Kansas church is known for picketing military funerals.

The U.S. Supreme Court is considering a case, Snyder v. Phelps, involving a $5 million damages award against the Westboro Baptist Church for its 2006 protest outside the funeral of Albert Snyder’s son Matthew, a Marine killed in Iraq.

Members of the church – which describes itself as Fundamentalist Protestant – express a belief that God is punishing the country and the military for tolerating gay people.

Church members traveled to Westminster, Md., to protest at Matthew Snyder’s funeral after contacting authorities for information on how to comply with local ordinances. The protest took place on public land 1,000 feet from the entrance of the church, and no protester approached anyone attending the funeral.

Protesters spoke, sang and held signs bearing messages such as “God hates you,” “Thank God for dead soldiers” and “You’re going to hell.” The church also posted an “epic” on its website, www.godhatesfags.com, which stated that the soldier’s parents “taught him that God was a liar.”

Sinema called the group “haters.”

Arizona’s law is patterned after one in Ohio that prohibits protests and pickets within 300 feet from a funeral or burial service. A majority of states have passed similar laws, Sinema said.

Not all lawmakers were thrilled by the idea of rushing through legislation, and Sen. Ron Gould, a Lake Havasu Republican, earlier said the nation’s commitment to free speech comes with a price.

“In a free society, if we’re going to allow people freedom of speech, you’re going to hear the speech of idiots. I don’t know that that particularly harms us,” he said.

But Gould eventually voted for the measure.

-The Associated Press contributed to this story.

2 comments

  1. Why can’t this kind of measure be passed in all 50 states? I am a God follower and Kansan but in no way condone the kind of behavior by Phelps and his group. I think God must weep to see such unkind behavior done in his name. I understand the idea of free speach but I think this has taken it way too far. We ought to be protecting those who have given their lives for our country and their loved ones.

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