Tucson Shooting: 'Divine Guard' to Counter Westboro Protesters

Peaceful 'angels' to line streets at Christina-Taylor Green's funeral.

January 11, 2011, 12:23 PM

Jan. 11, 2010 — -- When Christin Gilmer learned that members of the Westboro Baptist Church planned to protest the funeral of Christina-Taylor Green, the youngest victim in the Tucson, Ariz., massacre, she took action, enlisting a "divine guard" to buffer the picket signs.

"How dare you come with your hateful message when we're in mourning," Gilmer said. "Nobody comes into our beautiful town and tries to spew hate at the celebration and memorial of someone's life."

The Westboro Baptist Church, based in Topeka, Kan., is the offshoot group of fundamentalist pastor Fred Phelps. It frequently pickets soldiers' funerals, political rallies and gay rights gatherings. Church members have long said they're exercising their First Amendment rights.

"However many are dead, Westboro Baptist Church will picket their funerals," said Phelps in a video on the church's website. "We will remind the living that you can still repent and obey. This is ultimatum time with God."

Green, who was 9 years old, was gunned down allegedly by 22-year-old Jared Loughner, the man accused of spraying bullets at a political gathering in Tucson that left Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords fighting for her life.

Gilmer, 26, knew Gabriel Zimmerman, Giffords' staff member who died in the rampage, and was nauseated when she learned of his death.

"I was in shock and just kept crying and crying," Gilmer said. But she took action, sending a Facebook message to 90 of her friends Sunday. The message spread to thousands of others, and hundreds volunteered to help and donate money to the "divine guard."

"We're hoping to have people dressed in white, lining the streets to show a brightness and hope, to show Christina's family and Tucson that we love you ... and we support them," Gilmer said.

Christina's mother, Roxanne Green, did not want to comment about the possibility of protesters at her daughter's funeral, saying she was overwhelmed by just having to plan it.

Of the more than 200 people donning white, 30 people will wear angel wings with the idea of blocking the Westboro protesters' signs.

"It's going to be a silent, counter protest. It's not about us. It's about protecting the family," Gilmer said.

The 30 "angels" will undergo training.

"When you train people to be angels, they are helped with understanding what they're going to be facing. They're given meditation techniques. They're taught ways to avoid violence ... ways to avoid confrontation," said Katerina Sinclair of the University of Arizona's Frances McClelland Institute for Children, Youth and Families, who will lead the training.

Sinclair said the use of the angel wings is a tool that's been used to counter the Westboro Baptist Church since it protested Matthew Shepherd's funeral in 1998.

"Their job is to stand there, block the signs, and they're the angels that stand between hate and everyone else. They don't engage, they don't respond. It's kind of like having a very divine guard," said Sinclair.

But if Arizona lawmakers have their way, neither the "divine guard" nor their wings will be necessary.

Arizona State Rep. Kyrsten Sinema has drafted legislation that would require the Westboro protestors to stay 300 feet away from the funeral from an hour before it starts until an hour after it ends, ABC Affiliate KNXV reported.

"I'm a strong advocate of the First Amendment, and the bottom line is this, Fred Phelps and his group of people can still spew their hate if they want. They just don't get to do it close to the families that are grieving. They have to be farther away," Sinema told KNXV.

Westboro Church to Protest Funeral of Tucson Shooting Victim

But just in case, volunteers have donated at least $1,000 for supplies, and will build the wings at a Tucson dance studio, Gilmer said.

Gilmer herself, though, will not be among them.

"I'll organize it, but I don't think I can handle it. It's a little too close to home," she said. "If Westboro said something ... I would probably want to respond."

The Supreme Court is currently deciding a case in which the father of a soldier killed in Iraq sued the church after Westboro members demonstrated outside the soldier's funeral.

Recently, they protested the funeral of Elizabeth Edwards.

Gilmer said that if Westboro does show up at other funerals of the Tucson shooting victims, as it says it will, they'll be ready.

"If there's a threat of them, we'll be there," Gilmer said. "They're going to bring hate, intolerance, ignorance ... we're going to bring love."

The family of Christina Taylor-Green announced today the establishment of a charitable memorial fund to honor the young girl's life. The fund will be held by the Community Foundation for Southern Arizona. To learn more click here.

ABC News' Russell Goldman contributed to this report.

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