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Westboro Baptist Church Unified Democrats and Republicans Over One Thing: Limiting Freedom of Speech

GRAND STAND

Here’s a brief multiple-choice quiz relating to current events here in Arizona. See if you can pick the right answer. In response to the tragic events in Tucson, where goofball madman Jared Lee Loughner’s shooting spree injured 13 people, including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, and killed six more, notably Chief U.S. District Judge John Roll, what was the state Legislature’s response?

Did legislators:

a) Discuss protecting state mental-health programs from the budget ax?

b) Consider legislation to rein in Arizona’s gun-nut culture by requiring state background checks and a rigorous registration process for firearms?

c) Suspend House and Senate rules and ram through feel-good legislation that’s potentially unconstitutional, curtailing freedom of speech?

If you picked “c,” you win the right to enter state legislative buildings with the gun of your choice under your coat without having to go through security.

Oh, I forgot, there are no metal detectors at the state Capitol, so you can do that anyway, even though it’s, technically, illegal. Guess we’ll have to nix the door prize, a bucket of bullets.

See, Arizona legislators responded to the Tucson crisis by pulling together and crossing partisan lines to pass self-serving legislation that makes them look good on TV and bashes a tiny minority that likes to carry offensive signs outside funerals. I’m talking about Senate Bill 1101, which instituted a 300-foot no-free-speech cordon around funerals one hour before, during, and one hour after services.

As you all know, the gay-bashing, wacko Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, had announced its intention to picket the funerals of the Tucson victims, specifically those of Judge Roll and 9-year-old Christina Green.

WBC’s loony cult believes just about all deaths — of soldiers, public servants, and even ordinary schlubs — are divine retribution for America’s gay-friendly culture. Over the years, its members have demonstrated at countless funerals, from those of Afghanistan and Iraq War vets to those of celebrities, such as Michael Jackson and John Edwards’ wife, Elizabeth.

They’ve been through Arizona numerous times without incident. Sometimes they’ve threatened to show, then punked out at the last minute, just as they did in this case.

Back in 2009, three — count ’em, three — WBC members picketed across the street from Tempe’s Temple Emanuel synagogue during its Friday services, part of a WBC campaign to target “the Jews.”

Why? According to Sara Phelps, one of church Pastor Fred Phelps’ granddaughters, it was because of that old canard that Jews killed Jesus, even though Jesus was a Jew himself and Romans actually nailed Christ to the cross.

I know. Details, details . . .

See, the church thrives on the attention it gets from protesting nearly everything it can. And when you’re waving wacky signs like “God Hates Jews,” “You Will Eat Your Babies,” and “America Is Doomed,” you’re pretty much guaranteed to catch folks’ eyes.

Also, glomming onto every celebrity death and national tragedy that occurs will earn you some free media, for sure. At the time, the ever-cheerful and weirdly pleasant Sara Phelps told me that Jews deserved the Holocaust and that the Nazis had been the servants of the Lord (“Bigots at Westboro Baptist Church Have a New Target,” September 17, 2009).

“Just like Osama bin Laden was a tool, by the hand of God to destroy the Twin Towers, those Nazis were a tool,” she explained with a smile on her mug.

As such sentiments prove, WBC is so out there, so beyond the pale, that the church is little more than a cartoonish freak show. To be laughed at, not feared.

Taking WBC-ites seriously gives them far more power than they deserve. But take them seriously is exactly what the public, the press, and the politicos did regarding WBC’s threat to picket, no doubt serving up the loons a nice spike in traffic to their Web site, www.godhatesfags.com.

Nationally, and even internationally, people were in a tizzy over the prospect of WBC heading for Tucson. CNN’s Anderson Cooper denounced the group on his show and spotlighted Tucson residents’ plan for an “angel action,” which would’ve involved dressing up like angels with big wings to block WBC-ers from mourners’ sights had they shown up.

And, of course, the Legislature went over the top, suspending its own rules in the process, avoiding deliberation, debate, and public comment, all in order to make SB 1101 law.

That’s a worrisome precedent for Democrats, who have zero power in the current Legislature. But the Dems were too busy grandstanding and cozying up to state Senate President Russell Pearce to fret about that.

Über-lefty state Senator Kyrsten Sinema took credit for the legislation and rose to offer praise to Pearce and other Republicans on the Senate floor for helping to speed the plough.

In return, from his august Senate president’s seat, Pearce mumbled on about the “tender visits” he’d had with Sinema and others over the bill. Talk about a “get‑a‑room” moment between an avowed liberal bisexual and the neo-Nazi-befriending nativist.

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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons