Matthew Shepard died an unimaginably horrific death, lashed to a wooden fence in the lonely Wyoming countryside, beaten until he fell into coma and then abandoned. Yet five years after his October 1998 murder, the red-hot homophobia that fueled the college freshman's killers has flared up again in Wyoming, where outside extremists who call themselves Christians continue to flog Shepard in death.
The Rev. Fred Phelps, a Topeka, Kan., pastor, was one of the twisted demonstrators at Shepard's funeral who screamed, "God hates fags!" as Shepard's grieving parents and friends entered a Casper, Wyo., church. Phelps has returned to that city to mark the five-year anniversary of Shepard's death. But instead of expiating his sickening behavior, Phelps wants to commemorate it by installing a 6-foot-high granite monument with Shepard's face and these words: "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."
Phelps' political maneuverings are as wily as his ideas are repulsive. He wants his monument to hate to sit in Casper's City Park, where a large replica of the Ten Commandments was erected in 1965, a gift from the local Eagles Club. Last year, a Denver federal court, which has jurisdiction over Wyoming, ruled that communities displaying religious messages or symbols must allow other messages or symbols as well. So Phelps figured that if the park included a monument to the Ten Commandments, the city would have to accommodate his demand to place his "religious" anti-gay statue.
Casper's leaders, righteously appalled at Phelps' gambit, have come together to shut down his poisonous message. Last week, the City Council voted to move the Ten Commandments to a new historic plaza under construction. It's a move that while solving one problem might create new legal challenges, but at least the Ten Commandments wouldn't be used as an excuse for Phelps' testament to bigotry.
Meanwhile, the Eagles Club has offered to remove the granite Ten Commandments tablet from Casper's park. At least three local churches say they want it and would put it on private land. That's a far better idea -- and the best way to let Matthew Shepard finally rest in peace.