Lawmakers to head off picketing at Tucson funerals

Tuesday, January 11, 2011 | 4:45 p.m. CST

PHOENIX — Arizona legislators proposed emergency legislation Tuesday to head off picketing by a Topeka, Kan., church at the funeral service for a 9-year-old girl who was among six people killed during Saturday's shooting in Tucson.

The proposed law would prohibit protests at or near funeral sites and would take effect immediately if passed by the legislature and signed into law by Gov. Jan Brewer.

With dozens of lawmakers sponsoring the House and Senate versions of the bill, it appeared to be on track for quick passage as lawmakers suspended rules requiring several days of proceedings. Brewer spokesman Paul Senseman said the Republican governor would sign the bill if it reaches her desk.

The Westboro Baptist Church said Monday it plans to picket Thursday's funeral for Christina Taylor Green because "God sent the shooter to deal with idolatrous America." The fundamentalist church has picketed many military funerals to draw attention to its view that the deaths are God's punishment for the nation's tolerance of homosexuality.

Lawmakers denounced the church's plan to picket the child's funeral.

"This is just horrific that ... people have to deal with this," said Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, a Phoenix Democrat. "We shouldn't have to do this in time of great pain for our state."

The girl was the youngest of the six people killed during the shooting at an event held by U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Arizona, who was among 14 people injured. Giffords was shot in the head and was critically wounded.

Numerous states have passed laws restricting protests at funerals after members of the Westboro church began protesting at the funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Sinema, who said she is the lead sponsor of the Senate's version of the bill, said the Arizona legislation is modeled on an Ohio law that was upheld by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to issue a decision by late spring in a civil case involving a father's lawsuit against the church.

The four-paragraph Arizona bill would make it a misdemeanor to picket or conduct other protest activities within 300 feet of a funeral or burial service — about the length of a football field. The prohibition would be in effect from one hour before the event to one hour after.

Shirley Phelps-Roper, a church member and a daughter of its pastor, said the prohibition wouldn't matter because church members plan to picket at one of two intersections more than 1,000 feet from the church where the girl's service will be held.

Phelps-Roper also said church members plan to picket Friday in conjunction with a service for another victim of the shooting, U.S. District Judge John M. Roll.

Sinema said the prohibition would only apply to funeral and burial sites because courts have struck down picketing prohibitions for procession routes.

Spokesmen said House Speaker Kirk Adams and Senate President Russell Pearce both support the bill and that it enjoys strong bipartisan backing in the Republican-controlled legislature.

Adams "feels its very important to pass this today because he feels that the Westboro Baptist Church is despicable for what they plan to do at the funeral of the 9-year-old," Adams spokesman Daniel Scarpinato said. "He used the word 'disgusting' too."

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