How Tucson kept Westboro Baptist Church protests out of town

A Westboro Baptist Church spokeswoman is expected to get air time on two radio talk shows in exchange for the called-off protests. Critics say the church will get more exposure that way, but one of the talk-show hosts says the deal was worth it.

Emily Younker - The Joplin Globe/AP/File
Patriot Guard and others used flags to screen those attending a military funeral from Westboro Baptist Church protesters, seen in the background in Lamar, Mo., on Oct. 30, 2010. The church cancelled its plans to protest the funerals of victims of the Arizona shooting in exchange for air time on two radio shows.

United in grief over the Arizona mass shooting, Tucsonans and their sympathizers accomplished what others could not: run the controversial Westboro Baptist Church out of town.

Members of the church have protested outside military funerals across the United States as they attempt to spread their message that America is being punished for its growing tolerance of gay rights. But in Tucson, protesters did not show up at the first two funerals for shooting victims – held for 9-year-old Christina Green and US District Judge John Roll.

Instead, the Topeka, Kan., church will take to the airwaves. In exchange for canceling its planned pickets at the funerals of the six shooting victims, the church announced, it will get air time on two radio shows.

The move has sparked some criticism from pundits who say the church – which consists mostly of the Rev. Fred Phelps and his family members – will reach a far wider audience through radio than it would have at the funeral sites.

“People are saying they don’t deserve the air time, and they probably don’t. But these families do not deserve what the protesters wanted to do to them, either,” Tucson resident Patti Standard says.

On Saturday, church spokeswoman Shirley Phelps-Roper is expected to get 30 minutes of air time on a Phoenix talk show hosted by Steve Sanchez. And on Monday, the nationally syndicated Mike Gallagher show will give an hour to Ms. Phelps-Roper.

“One hour of radio time on my radio show is quite insignificant compared to [what] the grieving families and the mourning families have to go through,” says Mr. Gallagher, a conservative political commentator.

Phelps-Roper won’t simply have an open mic, he notes. She will be debating Dinesh D’Souza, president of The King’s College in New York City and author of “What’s So Great About Christianity.”

The emergency law that Arizona lawmakers passed earlier in the week in reaction to the planned pickets was unlikely to stop the protests, Gallagher says. The legislation makes protests illegal within 300 feet of any home, house of worship, cemetery, or funeral home just before, during, or after a ceremony or burial.

“I know these people: They don’t even want to get 300 feet away. And besides, even if they violate the law, it’s a misdemeanor,” Gallagher says. “It’s a slap on the wrist.”

The best deterrent is “to keep them from ever going,” says Gallagher, adding that those who don’t want to hear the radio segments have the option to turn their radio off.

The Westboro Baptist Church’s antigay protests have angered many Americans and have raised difficult free-speech questions. The US Supreme Court is weighing a case that involves the group’s actions.

From what some Tucson residents know about the church, they’ve decided not to tune in to the radio shows.

“I don’t think anybody in Tucson will have the show on,” says C.J. Doyle, a resident who went to Christina's funeral along with 20-year-old daughter Emily. “But I think it’s going to end up good because you’re not going to have a whole bunch of people exposed to that particular group.”

Phoenix resident Marshall Stone, who traveled to Tucson to pay his respects, was glad the protesters left the mourning families alone.

“I have a daughter, and I can’t imagine the parents having to bury their daughter, and then on top of that to be bothered by somebody like the Westboro people,” he says.

Six people were killed in Saturday’s mass shooting, and 14 others were injured, including US Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D).

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