In the wake of the Jan. 8 shootings in Tucson, the Arizona state legislature has passed emergency legislation to prevent the Westboro Baptist Church from picketing victims' funerals, including that of 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green. The church's leader, Fred Phelps, has posted a video in which he thanks God for the Tucson gunman, calling Loughner a "soldier hero" for God. The law, based on one passed in Ohio in 2006, prohibits any group from protesting within 300 feet of a funeral. The ban applies one hour before the funeral, during the funeral, and for one hour after the funeral. Breaking it is punishable by fines and possible jail time.
With news of the law's passing, several Arizona radio stations offered the church airtime to discuss its members' views in exchange for not protesting the funerals. The church has accepted the offers. The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation has slammed the stations for giving the church airtime, saying that doing so is the equivalent of negotiating with terrorists, and that "Westboro is being incentivized by being provided with an outlet to broadcast their hate to thousands of others." Even talk-show host Mike Gallagher, whose show reaches an estimated 10 million listeners, says he doesn't like giving the church the satisfaction of getting time on the air.
Is Arizona in the right to pass such a law, or does it contradict the 1st Amendment protection of free speech and the right to religious freedom?
Is giving airtime to a group notorious for its hate and spite a good trade-off if it keeps the funerals free of protesters? Or is it unjustly rewarding their beliefs?
And are you worried that if a national law were passed banning such protests, it could set a precedent that would allow for more restrictions on religious activities?
What about freedom of speech? While we do have freedom of speech in this country, we also are not permitted to yell "Fire!" in a crowded theater. In my opinion, for the state of Arizona to pass a law restricting freedom of speech at funerals, that's okay. Just as one must not overstep his bounds in yelling "Fire," so must one not overstep his bounds and compound the grief of family members who have lost a loved one.
What about giving that hateful church with its hateful ideology a platform on local radio? I think it's a good idea so that thinking people who hear such hate can understand for themselves how very uncompassionate those so-called "Christians" are. If enough people hear those idiots speak, they will realize just how awful their ideology is.
Am I worried that a national law might set a bad precedent? Absolutely. We are all familiar with the phrase, "There oughta be a law," but in this case, there shouldn't be. It's possible to have too many laws. In the time of Jesus, the ultra-legalistic Pharisees tried to keep every single one of the more than 600 laws that had evolved at the time. But in doing so, they sometimes lacked common sense — and certainly compassion. What we don't need is another law. What we do need is more common sense and more compassion.
The Rev. Skip Lindeman
La Cañada Congregational Church
Arizona is right to prohibit groups from protesting shooting victims' funerals. Fred Phelps and his followers can still express their views in public, but the families deserve to mourn their losses without the provocation of others. That's just common courtesy and common sense. Paul described the purpose of law (including God's law), that it "is not made for a righteous man, but for those who are lawless and rebellious, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane" (1 Timothy 1:9). If people treated each other with love and respect, we wouldn't need the laws we have to protect us.
Bribing such groups with media exposure is a terrible idea. In effect, any time they had something to say, they could threaten to bully some poor family and then offer not to in exchange for airtime. It would give them an incentive to continue and increase their unkind behavior.
While I agree that Arizona's law is justified in this instance, it does raise some concerns about its impact on other public religious expression. For example, I believe we should have the right to protest abortion centers (without violence, of course) and to pray "in Jesus' name" at city-council invocations. I suppose these questions about legality underscore the basic problem with law – it doesn't really solve the problem. God knew the Law of Moses wasn't the ultimate solution for mankind, so he intended all along to establish a new, better covenant with mankind: "I shall give them one heart, and shall put a new spirit within them. And I shall take the heart of stone out of their flesh and give them a heart of flesh" (Ezekiel 11:19). This happens only when we receive Jesus Christ and are born again, being made new people in our hearts by the direct work of God. This "new self... in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth" (Ephesians 4:24) and doesn't need to be restrained by law.
Pastor Jon Barta
Valley Baptist Church, Burbank
I am saddened beyond tears that the members of the Westboro Baptist Church, under the leadership of Fred Phelps, have threatened to picket the funeral of young Christina Taylor Green, one of the victims of bullets fired by a Tucson gunman several weeks ago. The only motive that they have claimed for their announced protest is to express hate and vengeance against those whom "God hates," presumably because Christina's family is Catholic.
The thing that is most disturbing to me about their proposed actions is that they represent themselves as a Christian church. I don't believe that any Christians I know could possibly ignore Jesus' message of love, as though this little girl's family has not suffered enough. And how could a supposed man of God say that he was glad for the killings because the gunman was a "Soldier Hero" sent by God to punish the people of our country for their sins?