Arizonans Rally to Prevent Westboro Church Disruption of Shooting Victims' Funerals

Arizona residents are locking arms to stop the Westboro Baptist Church from disrupting the funerals for victims of Saturday's shooting in Tucson, with bikers and others organizing a massive counter-protest and state lawmakers fast-tracking a bill to hamstring the group.

The Kansas-based Westboro church is notorious for showing up at the funerals of dead soldiers and other high-profile gatherings wielding anti-gay signs.

But when the church announced it would picket the funeral Thursday for the 9-year-old girl fatally shot over the weekend at a Tucson grocery store by a gunman who allegedly killed five others and injured 14 others attending a town-hall session by Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, Tucson- and Phoenix-area residents started organizing immediately.

They may not be able to stop them, but they plan on giving the grieving family as much of a buffer as possible between the protesters and the service.

"It makes me sick to my stomach," said Glen Littell, who's bringing a pack of bikers from the Phoenix Motorcycle Rider Group to Tucson on Thursday. "They're a stench from a slaughterhouse. We're just going to block the stench so the family can catch their breath."

Arizona state lawmakers approved emergency legislation that would order protesters to stay 300 feet away from the funeral. The bill passed unanimously in the House and the Senate and Gov. Jan Brewer signed the bill into law Tuesday night.

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, the lead sponsor on the bill, said in an e-mail to colleagues before the bill was passed that the plan was to protect the victims' families from the "hateful protest" from the Westboro Baptist Church.

She said she has the support of the Senate president and Gov. Jan Brewer, and the bill will go into effect "immediately" once it's signed.

"It's gonna happen," Sinema said. The senator said she was "real upset" after learning that the Westboro church planned on protesting but had a visceral reaction after reading their press release and sprung into action.

"It is the most disgusting thing I ever read in my entire life," she told "I literally threw up after I read it. … I'm like, 'I'm gonna fix this.'"

Littell said his riders are not looking for any violent confrontations. But he told that Arizona bikers are going to do "whatever we have to do" to cordon off the family from the protests. A group called the Patriot Guard Riders often does this when the Westboro church pickets military funerals, but Littell said that group is not traveling to Tucson, so "we're stepping in."

"Our sole purpose will be to allow that family some dignity and respect … without having to worry about the a--holes," he said.

It's not clear whether the Westboro church intends to picket the funerals of all the victims of Saturday's attack. One press release from the group declared, "Thank God for the shooter," and said the group would picket the "funerals." Another release announced plans only for the protest on Thursday.

"God sent the shooter to deal with idolatrous America," the group said in a statement.

The Westboro church, led by Fred Phelps, believes that tragic events like the deaths of soldiers are punishment for tolerance of homosexuality.

The Supreme Court last fall heard arguments in a case brought against Phelps by the father of a soldier killed in Iraq whose funeral was protested by the group in 2006. The father, Albert Snyder, had won a multimillion-dollar verdict against the church, claiming invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The court is expected to issue a ruling soon on whether free speech can be curbed at specific locations and events.

Sinema said the bill she was introducing is modeled on an Ohio law that has withstood court challenge. It would technically apply to protesters at any Arizona funeral, though Sinema was clear that it's directed at Westboro.

She said she hopes the protesters and counter-protesters avoid any violence at the service. Meanwhile, several grassroots groups have popped up on Facebook calling on Tucson residents to intervene.

"We will create a wall of humanity to allow the families who've lost their love ones to hold their funerals in peace, held with dignity, and surrounded in love," one of the Facebook groups says in a statement.

Another calls for a "peaceful protest" of the church at the funeral Thursday for 9-year-old Christina Green.

Littell has notified the Pima County Sheriff's Department and has reached out to several other biker groups notifying them of their planned presence at Green's funeral. He crossed his fingers that the Hells Angels would join them.

"Nothing says stand back and be silent like a Hells Angels presence," he said.

Littell added that if the church moves on to picket other funerals, his riders will follow.

"We're getting word there's gonna be a pretty large presence of bikers," he said. "Word's spreading. And spreading quickly."