Local 'Angels' group, new AZ law seek to shelter funeral goers from protests

2011-01-12T00:00:00Z 2011-01-12T09:15:07Z Local 'Angels' group, new AZ law seek to shelter funeral goers from protestsFernanda Echavarri and Andrea Kelly and Howard Fischer Arizona Daily Star Capitol Media Services Arizona Daily Star

Threatened protests at the funerals of several victims of Saturday's deadly shooting rampage could get little notice thanks to multiple efforts to support their families.

In Phoenix, the Legislature moved with unprecedented speed to pass a bill making 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.

And a Tucson group is planning to have "Angel Action" present at the funerals of 9-year-old Christina-Taylor Green on Thursday and U.S. Judge John M. Roll on Friday.

Hundreds will stand side to side wearing white, and dozens of people will spread the 8-to-10-feet white angel wings shielding the family and those attending the funeral from any distractions or unwanted protesters, said Christin Gilmer, the force behind Angel Action.

The legislative action is a response to a threat by members of the Westboro Baptist Church, known for their funeral protests, to do exactly that at the funerals for Saturday's victims. Violators could be sentenced to up to six months in jail and a $2,500 fine.

Angel Action participants are aware of the Westboro shadow. But Andrew Gaskins said the effort needs to be in support of the families, not to protest or counter Westboro Baptist Church.

"We need to ignore them. We need to make this about the loss that their families and our community suffered," Gaskins told a crowd at an organizational meeting at a downtown park Monday night.

"We are a city filled with peaceful, compassionate people, and we want to show that," Gilmer said. "We want to show the families and the world that hate isn't greater than love at any time."

Online posts by Fred Phelps, pastor at Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., say "God sent the shooter" and that he plans to protest at the Tucson funerals.

Representatives of the church have confirmed they intend to be here, and Tucson police say Westboro contacted police and gave notice of the protest.

Phelps' statements on other issues have drawn fury, including that soldiers' deaths are God's punishment for the nation's tolerance of abortion and homosexuality.

"That kind of intolerance is not about to happen in my town," Gilmer said. "This isn't a counter-protest: This is our way of showing support to the families of those affected, by keeping (Phelps) away from them."

House Speaker Kirk Adams, R-Mesa, conceded that introducing, debating and approving substantive legislation like this in a single day is "unprecedented," but said such speed was necessary in the face of the immediate threat.

"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."

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 that 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.

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.

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.' "

The angel wing idea started at the 1999 funeral of Matthew Shepard, where Shepard's best friend and a group of activists donned white angel wings to prevent protesters from disrupting the service.

Thousands of people have joined groups on Facebook, pledging to counteract Phelps' plans, and form a "human blockade" in Tucson to shield the funerals from such protesters.

The group plans to line the streets near the funerals, since some families requested private memorials and funerals.

Contact Andrea Kelly at 807-7790 or akelly@azstarnet.com. Contact reporter Fernanda Echavarri at fechavar@azstarnet.com or 573-4224.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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