Matthew Shepard's town upset by pastor's plan

Park monument would denounce murdered man

October 12, 2003|By David Kelly | David Kelly,LOS ANGELES TIMES

CASPER, Wyo. - The Rev. Fred Phelps plans to commemorate the fifth anniversary of Matthew Shepard's murder in his own unique style.

The 73-year-old Topeka, Kan., pastor has designed a granite monument engraved with Shepard's face followed by these words chiseled in the stone: Matthew Shepard Entered Hell October 12, 1998, at Age 21 In Defiance of God's Warning: "Thou shalt not lie with mankind as with womankind; it is abomination." Leviticus 18:22.

Shepard, a freshman at the University of Wyoming, Laramie, was tied to a fence and beaten into a coma, allegedly because he was a homosexual. He died five days later. The murder shocked the nation, leading to pleas for tolerance and education about gay and lesbian issues. The two attackers were sentenced to life in prison.

Phelps, who screamed "God hates fags" at Shepard's funeral here, is demanding that his 6-foot-tall monument be placed in Casper's City Park not far from where the victim grew up.

Horrified officials in this rural, high plains community say there is little they can do to stop it.

Why?

Because of the Ten Commandments.

In 1965, the local Eagles Club donated a granite replica of the Ten Commandments, which has sat in a corner of the park ever since.

Last year, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, which also covers Wyoming, said communities displaying such monuments on public property must allow other messages or symbols as well. That includes Phelps' monument.

"I refuse to let Casper be defined by hate," said Mayor Barbara Peryam.

That leaves the city with little room to maneuver: Either remove the commandments or allow Phelps and his monument to share the park with them.

At the same time, a Madison, Wis., group called Freedom from Religion, has requested the removal of the Ten Commandments. They cited recent legal decisions against similar monuments in Alabama, Nebraska and Tennessee.

Casper, the second-largest city in Wyoming with 50,000 residents, is by all accounts a conservative, Republican place. Along with being Matthew Shepard's hometown, it's also where Vice President Dick Cheney grew up.

But there is a strong tradition of live and let live here, a tradition that goes with the rugged, isolated quality of the place.

"One thing about people in Wyoming, they respect privacy," said Guy Padgett, a 26-year-old gay city councilman. "I have seen some positive changes in the five years since Matthew's death. However people may feel about gays and lesbians, they won't tolerate the kind of hate forced on us by those like Mr. Phelps."

The City Council met for four hours last week and could not agree on a solution.

Many people, including the mayor, want to move the Ten Commandments monument to private property. Three local churches said they would take it.

Others want to buy the land the monument sits on.

The Eagles Club has volunteered to take it back.

"Reverend Phelps is doing a very hateful thing," said Herschel Nickerson, secretary of the local Eagles Club, taking a break from calling bingo for the ladies auxiliary.

Back in the 1950s, chapters of the Fraternal Order of Eagles nationwide began handing out monuments to cities that held state conventions, club officials said.

A number of cities have removed them from public parks in response to threats of lawsuits. Brian Barnard, a Salt Lake City civil rights attorney, was part of the suit that led to the 10th Circuit Court's decision last year.

"Casper is between a rock and a hard place," he said. "They opened that forum to the Eagles, how can they now say we aren't going to let anyone else do it? Phelps is right from a legal standpoint. Casper needs to take action."

The simplest thing, Barnard said, would be to remove the commandments, then ban all private monuments from the park.

But Phelps claims that would infringe on his First Amendment rights.

"The city is trying to do an end run around freedom of speech," he said.

Phelps, a former lawyer disbarred in 1979 on allegations that he abused witnesses, pastors the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka. For the past five years, he has made annual pilgrimages to Casper, Laramie and Fort Collins, Colo., to "celebrate" Matthew Shepard's "entry into hell."

Shepard was born in Casper, beaten in Laramie and died in Fort Collins.

Occasionally soft-spoken, more often raging, Phelps is single-minded in his effort to muddy Shepard's reputation. His view of the Bible is hard and uncompromising.

His motivation comes from disgust at the way Shepard was treated when he died.

"They made him into a hero," Phelps said. "We say he is not a hero, and it is not an innocent lifestyle. Why make a hero out of this kind of lifestyle?"

Phelps said he'd buy land for his $15,000 monument if Casper denies him access to the park.

Justin Huseas, 26, a local tree trimmer, doubts it would last long.

"Someone would knock it down the next day," he said. "And the police might just turn their heads."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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