Boise faces Phelps controversy
Dec. 3, 2003
Chuck Oxlex, Associated Press Writer
ReligionNewsBlog.com • Monday December 8, 2003
BOISE, Idaho — One of the first political problems facing incoming mayor Dave Bieter will be an attempt by an extremist anti-gay church to erect a hate monument next to the city’s own monument to the Ten Commandments.
Civil libertarians say the city may have no choice but to accommodate both monuments — and maybe more.
Fred Phelps, who leads the Topeka, Kan.-based Westboro Baptist Church, plans to picket a prayer demonstration on Dec. 13 and 14 at the city monument behind the bandshell in Julia Davis Park.
Phelps has formally asked the city for permission to install a 6-foot granite edifice bearing the name and image of Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old Wyoming college student who died in 1998 five days after when he was lured out of a Laramie bar by two men, kidnapped and beaten into a coma. Police said he was targeted in part because he was gay. His attackers were later convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison.
Phelps’ monument would say that Shepard went to hell because he was gay.
Phelps’ demonstration will coincide with a prayer rally that is expected to draw about 500 local people who support a public, secular display of the Ten Commandments.
The controversy will fall squarely into the lap of incoming Boise Mayor Dave Bieter, an attorney and Democratic state lawmaker who takes over the nonpartisan office on Jan. 6.
“If the issue is erecting a monument that denigrates the memory of a murder victim, that’s not welcome on any city property that we control,” Bieter told The Associated Press on Tuesday.
Although Bieter said he would be taking a planned vacation in Spain’s Basque country on the days of the demonstrations, he said he will make sure Phelps’ group gets his message — that he should take his hateful group and go home.
“That’s what I’m saying,” he said.
Shepard has no known connection to Idaho. He was from Casper and attending college in Laramie when he was killed. Phelps, who picketed Shepard’s funeral, has tried to get approval for similar anti-gay monuments in Casper and in Idaho’s Minidoka County.
In Casper, the city council voted to move its Ten Commandments monument from a public park to a historic plaza. It’s unclear whether that action will be enough to block Phelps’ marker.
In Rupert, county commissioners decided not to sell any of the courthouse lawn, either to Phelps or to another religious group that had sought to install a monument to the Ten Commandments.
Abigail Phelps, the youngest of Fred Phelps’ 13 children, said she intends to demonstrate with others from her church next month.
“I’m going to remind them about the fact that the same God who etched the Ten Commandments is the same that said, “Thou shalt not lie with mankind,” Abigail Phelps said.
She said that because Boise already has one religious monument, it is only fair that other religious messages also be allowed, no matter what the content.
Abigail Phelps denied that she or her church hated Shepard himself, but she justified her hatred of Shepard’s parents for allowing him to be gay.
“The wisest man who ever lived once said, ‘There’s a time to hate and a time to love,”‘ she said.
The American Civil Liberties Union Idaho chapter agrees with Phelps’ legal logic. Staff attorney Marty Durand said problems arise whenever the government recognizes the beliefs of one faith because it must then provide equal opportunity for others.
“Once you open the door, you have to be prepared for whatever walks through,” Durand said. “The easiest way to avoid this is to not to have any monuments.”
Boise State University political science professor Jim Weatherby said the controversy will be a test of Bieter’s mettle. But he said it is also an opportunity for leaders at all levels to reject the kind of hatred that has plagued the state and tarnished its reputation.
“The haters should be confronted. Silence — especially from Idahoans — can and has been misconstrued as agreement. Our leaders should make it clear that hate messages are not tolerated,” Weatherby said.
Boise’s Ten Commandments monument was installed in 1965 on the city’s greenbelt as a gift from the city’s Fraternal Order of the Eagles. The monument is across the street from the Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial, established just last year to promote respect for human dignity and diversity.
Les Bock, executive director of the Idaho Human Rights Education Center, said the city should deny Phelps’ request.
“It’s an easy issue — tell him he can’t display his monument. There’s nothing good about what this man is doing,” Bock said.
Bieter, who is Roman Catholic, said he wants a solution that would keep the Ten Commandments monument in place but deny Phelps.
“I don’t know that removing the Ten Commandments is the only way,” Bieter said.
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