January 12, 2011 / 1:36 AM / 10 years ago

Arizona lawmakers seek to block funeral protests

PHOENIX (Reuters) - Arizona state lawmakers moved swiftly on Tuesday to try to block members of a Kansas-based fundamentalist church from staging anti-gay protests at the funerals of the six shooting victims in Tucson.

Members of the Westboro Baptist Church hold anti-gay signs at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia on Veterans Day, November 11, 2010. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

By unanimous votes, state lawmakers in both houses of the Legislature passed emergency legislation to bar such protests within 300 feet of funeral and burial services for one hour before and after the ceremonies. Violators would face a misdemeanor charge.

Arizona Governor Jan Brewer was expected to sign the bill into law Tuesday night, spokesman Paul Senseman told Reuters. The measure would take effect immediately.

The Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, has said it plans to hold demonstrations at the funerals of those gunned down on Saturday outside a Tucson supermarket. A former community college student Jared Loughner is accused of the shooting rampage that killed six and wounded 14, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

Church members have picketed the funerals of U.S. military personnel killed in Afghanistan and Iraq to promote their belief that America is being punished by God for tolerating homosexuals.

The U.S. military currently permits gay men and lesbians to serve in the armed forces so long as they keep their sexual orientation private, though Congress recently passed a bill to repeal such restrictions on homosexuals in uniform.

“This is an important moment for Arizona and our nation as we come together to do what is right during a time of grief and mourning,” said Republican House Speaker Kirk Adams, a bill sponsor. “Protesting or picketing outside the funeral of an innocent victim is despicable.

“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,” he said.

Democratic Senator Kyrsten Sinema, who sponsored the bill in the state Senate, said she hopes the legislation provides “some small measure of comfort” for the grieving families.

“During times of grief, families should be free from harassment or intimidation,” she said. “This law does the right thing by protecting those families.”

Lawmakers said the legislation was patterned after a similar “funeral protection zone” established in Ohio.

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in October in a free-speech test case brought by the father of a Marine killed in Iraq after church members protested at his son’s funeral in Maryland. A decision in the case is expected by the middle of next year.

Editing by Steve Gorman and Greg McCune

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