CASPER, Wyo. (AP) – City leaders voted to move a Ten Commandments monument out of a public park after an anti-gay preacher proposed his own monument saying slain college student Matthew Shepard is in hell.
The Rev. Fred Phelps said displaying the Ten Commandments monument would force the city to allow other public displays as well, including his own.
Phelps’ proposal was unanimously rejected Tuesday by the City Council, which then voted 5-4 to move the Ten Commandments monument into a plaza that will honor a variety of historic documents.
But the move may not fend off Phelps’ plan, or satisfy a separate complaint from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which had threatened to sue if the Ten Commandments monument was not removed from City Park, where it has been for nearly 40 years.
Phelps, of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., said he chose Casper as the site for the 6-foot-tall granite display because it is where the University of Wyoming student learned it is “OK to be gay.”
Shepard’s 1998 murder sparked a national outcry for hate-crimes legislation. Phelps picketed the funeral.
Casper Mayor Barb Peryam said she believes the city can win any battle in court.
“If you think that we are going to put our monument someplace in cold storage, I’ve got another thought for you,” she said to the “outsiders” involved. “We are going to put it where it will be more noticed, more taken advantage of and used for learning purposes by all families.”
However, neither Dan Barker, of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, nor Shirley Phelps-Roper, of the Westboro Baptist Church, shared Peryam’s assessment of the city’s chances in court.
“It looks like a ruse; it looks like a trick for them to keep it,” Barker said. “It would probably be unconstitutional because the intention of the city is to maintain a religious document. The reason they are doing that is to keep the Ten Commandments.”
In a decision last year, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that any city displaying a Ten Commandments monument on city property must also allow monuments of other religious or political groups.
Phelps, 73, is using the decision to back his argument.
His $15,000 display would bear a bronze placard with Shepard’s portrait and an inscription reading: “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-Roper said her church will examine its options, including litigation.
Barker was unable to say what his organization’s next move will be.
Sarah McMullen, a spokeswoman for Shepard’s mother, Judy, declined comment other than to say “The Shepards and the entire community of Casper have chosen to confront Mr. Phelps’ reprehensible behavior with silence.”
City Manager Tom Forslund said the Ten Commandments monument will probably be removed from City Park and placed in temporary storage next month. The new plaza will include monuments honoring the Declaration of Independence, the preamble of the Constitution and other documents vital to the development of American law, Forslund said.