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Intolerance Chiseled in Stone Hits City Hard

Casper, Wyo., faces the prospect of having to allow a monument that condemns gay murder victim Matthew Shepard.

October 12, 2003|David Kelly | Times Staff Writer

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 word 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 in Laramie, was tied to a fence and beaten into a coma Oct. 7, 1998, allegedly because he was 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 his 6-foot-high monument be placed in Casper's City Park not far from the 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 that has sat in a corner of the park ever since.

Last year, the 10th Circuit Court in Denver, which 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 Ten 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.

"A large segment of the community feels insulted that we have a group from Wisconsin and another from Kansas trying to tell us what to do," said City Manager Tom Forslund.

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 a place flanked by mountains, broad rivers and brown rolling hills stretching from horizon to horizon. Casper's downtown still has family-owned department stores selling lariats and cowboy hats.

"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."

At a bowling alley downtown, 45-year-old Randy Carlen expressed dismay over the drama playing out in his hometown.

"I can't believe this is all happening here," he said. "Nobody hates anyone here."

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 have said they would take it.

Others want to buy the land the monument sits on.

The Eagles Club has volunteered to take it back.

"Rev. 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. "If the city votes to move it, we will donate it to some other place."

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

Bob Wahls, grand secretary of the Eagles at their national headquarters in Grove City, Ohio, said about 200 were given away.

"We stopped doing it in 1975 because the cost of granite became so high," he said. "I think they will all have to be moved eventually."

A number of cities have already 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.

Phelps claims that would infringe on his 1st Amendment rights.

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

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