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


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,

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.

Local media praised the Legislature’s rare day of cooperation, of lions lying down with lambs, of misty-eyed Republicans and Democrats holding hands and singing “Kumbaya.”

The only thing close to a profile in courage came from right-wing Lake Havasu City Republican Ron Gould. The state Senator voted “aye” along with the rest of his colleagues, but he at least seemed a tad troubled by the rush and by the implications of the measure itself.

At one point, Gould stated, “Even idiots have a right to free speech,” and noted that when the rules are thrown out the barn door, “mistakes get made.”

To which I say, “Bravo, Senator Gould.”

Though I’ve flayed him in print for his ongoing effort to undermine the birthright citizenship provision of the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment, he went further in his comments than even the local ACLU.

Granted, when I contacted the ACLU of Arizona’s executive director, Alessandra Soler Meetz, she criticized the end run around the rules.

“Anytime members of the Arizona Legislature fast-track a bill to circumvent public debate, it’s problematic and undemocratic,” she told me.

But as to the new law, she observed that the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals had declared a similar Ohio law constitutional, because it regulated the time, place, and manner of the protest, not the content involved.

“Unequivocally, we believe [Fred] Phelps has a First Amendment right to protest,” she stated. “The Constitution protects even the most hateful, offensive speech that most people find unacceptable. This bill will not prevent protesters from expressing their views, regardless of how disgusting or hateful the speech is.”

Oddly, however, the ACLU of Ohio sided with Westboro Baptist Church’s challenge to the Ohio law in the 6th Circuit. Meetz noted that ACLU legal beagles “have not been asked to challenge the [Arizona] law,” but that they “plan to do more research,” if asked.

Not to bore you with all the legal rigmarole, but it’s worth observing that the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals granted a preliminary injunction in 2007 against the enforcement of a Missouri law designed to curtail WBC.

A cemetery or a religious institution is a nonpublic forum; what’s at issue is what can happen on the public venues outside such places.

The 8th Circuit did not rule on the constitutionality of the measure, but it held that WBC would surely prevail in its challenge, and that the “balance of equities . . . generally favors the constitutionally protected freedom of expression.”

The U.S. Supreme Court is considering a case involving WBC. This involves a lawsuit against the church, which it won on appeal. However, the Supremes are expected to address some of the underlying First Amendment issues involved.

What’s the big deal in restricting the rights of religious insane-iacs to wave hateful placards and possibly upset mourners?

Well, there is the very valid argument that such restrictions can be turned against us at some point.

The day before the Tucson massacre, the human rights group Puente protested outside a private residence in Paradise Valley, where scores of lobbyists gathered to contribute upwards of $250 a pop to their new lord and master, state Senate President Pearce.

Lobbyists had to walk a gauntlet of protesters, some of whom compared them to Nazis — no doubt partly because Pearce used to be very friendly with local neo-Nazi J.T. Ready (“The Company He Kept,” December 16). Perhaps it was unfair to the lobbyists, though I don’t bemoan that they were given grief as they rushed to kiss Pearce’s hand.

Yeah, there was no funeral going on inside (unless it was a funeral for clean government), but the situation is similar enough. Even if this particular law would not apply, one mimicking it for private fundraising events could, with Pearce in charge, be drafted and passed. And in the paranoia in the aftermath of Congresswoman Gifford’s shooting, it’s hardly inconceivable that such a statute could be enacted.

After all, congressmen from both sides of the aisle have proposed national legislation in the wake of Jared Loughner’s rampage that would curtail constitutional rights, from a 1,000-foot no-gun circle around all government officials to banning “symbolic” threats, such as the crosshairs Sarah Palin famously used in relation to the politicos she was targeting.

Both ideas are dumb, for obvious reasons.

I can already hear the gun nuts screeching that I’m a hypocrite for criticizing the anti-WBC law, while at the same time, backing sensible restrictions on the sale of firearms in the hopes of throwing a few speed bumps in the path of the next Loughner-like lunatic (“Arizona’s Lax Gun Laws,” January 13).

But here’s the difference: The activities of Westboro Baptist Church have never slain anyone, while firearms and their owners are responsible for thousands of deaths in the United States every year.

Using the latest data available, the Centers for Disease Control recorded 31,224 firearm-related mortalities for the nation in 2007. The FBI’s crime stats for 2009 show that firearms were the weapon of choice in 67 percent of all murders in this country.

Upsetting people is one thing. That’s what fruitcakes like WBC members do. Whereas straitjacket-types with unlimited and unrestricted access to guns and ammo can cause the very funeral that WBC might protest.

Which deserves more severe limitations? The guns, the bullets. Not the words.

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