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Arizona enacts funeral protest legislation

By the CNN Wire Staff
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Gov. Jan Brewer signed the bill Tuesday night
  • Westboro Baptist Church says the shootings are God's punishment for disobedience
  • Legislation bars protesters within 300 feet of services
  • Groups plan to also shield families from potential picketers

For more information, visit CNN affiliates KGUN, KOLD, KVOA, KPHO and KMSB. Read the federal charges against Jared Lee Loughner (PDF).

Tucson, Arizona (CNN) -- Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed emergency legislation Tuesday that bars protests within 300 feet of a funeral and within an hour from its beginning or end.

Earlier in the day, the state legislature passed the measure, which targets a Kansas church whose members announced they plan to picket the funerals of the victims of Saturday's shootings in Tucson.

"Such despicable acts of emotional terrorism will not be tolerated in the State of Arizona," Brewer said in a statement announcing she had signed the bill. "This legislation will assure that the victims of Saturday's tragic shooting in Tucson will be laid to rest in peace with the full dignity and respect that they deserve."

The legislation makes protesting too near a funeral a misdemeanor in the state. It went into effect immediately upon Brewer's signing it.

The action is in direct response to the Westboro Baptist Church's announcement that it will picket the funeral of Christina Green, the 9-year-old who was among six people killed during Saturday's attempted assassination of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Arizona.

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The controversial church, based in Topeka, has made its name by staging protests at funerals of people who died of AIDS, gay people, soldiers and even Coretta Scott King. The church was founded by Fred Phelps, 80, and most of its members are members of his extended family.

"Today we have joined together to provide some small measure of comfort for families grieving over the lost of a loved one," said Democratic state Sen. Kyrsten Sinema. "During times of grief, families should be free from harassment or intimidation. This law does the right thing by protecting those families."

"Protesting or picketing outside the funeral of an innocent victim is despicable," said Republican state House Speaker Kirk Adams. "It's time to bring Arizona in line with the many other states that protect the sensitivities of victims against groups that use fear and hate to denigrate the lives of Americans."

Within hours of the church's announcements, Facebook groups sprang up to plan actions surrounding the funerals that would keep the church members separate from the mourners.

Tucson just isn't that kind of town, says Christin Gilmer, 26, referring to the actions of the church.

"For something like this to happen in Tucson was a really big shock to us all," she said. "Our nightmare happened when we saw Westboro Baptist Church was going to picket the funerals."

Gilmer and others are planning an "angel action" -- with 8-by-10-foot "angel wings" worn by participants to shield mourners from picketers. Angel actions were created by Coloradan Romaine Patterson, who was shocked to find the Topeka church and its multicolored signs outside the 1999 funeral of Matthew Shepard, a young gay man beaten and left on a fence to die in Laramie, Wyoming.

The angel action is part of a larger effort, organized by Chelsea Cohen, a 20-year-old University of Arizona senior, aimed at showing what she said are Tucson's true colors.

"Once I heard that the Westboro Baptist Church was coming, I felt like something should be done to show support for the families," she said. "I don't have any experience in organizing these things. I thought I might get 50 to 100 people."

"This isn't a counter-protest," she said. "We wanted it to show support for the families and to show that Tucson is there with love and support."

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The groups don't want to interfere with the funeral in any way, Cohen said.

"We plan on being completely silent, and we're asking people not to bring signs or make comments about the Westboro Baptist Church," she said.

Jeff Rogers, chairman of the Pima County Democratic Party, said Tuesday that his organization as well as the local Republican Party also will ask people to line the funeral routes to form a barricade if the church follows through on its planned protest.

Westboro Baptist Church spokeswoman Shirley Phelps-Roper, daughter of Fred Phelps, provided CNN with a statement detailing their decision to picket the funerals. It is filled with anti-gay, anti-abortion and anti-divorce rhetoric that members have used in the past to justify their pickets -- that God hates America because it has turned its back on what they see as God's way.

"We picket the funerals to make these vital points to the living!" Phelps-Roper said. "If you heed, it is life and health and peace and safety.

"God sent the shooter!" the statement continued. "Praise God for ALL his works, and BE YE THANKFUL!."

CNN's Alyse Shorland and Kevin Bohn contributed to this report.

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