When Matthew Shepard, an open homosexual, was brutally beaten to death five years ago, his home town of Casper, Wyoming, became a shrine to the most revered gay martyr in America. Now Casper is once again mired in controversy, the target of a vicious anti-homosexual crusade by a pastor in a cowboy hat who operates a website called www.godhatesfags.com.
Fred Phelps, head of the Primitive Baptist church in Topeka, Kansas, plans to install a 1.8m high granite monument to Shepard in the municipal park to "celebrate" his death. Under a bronze engraving of his portrait it bears the words: "Matthew Shepard entered hell 12 October 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."
The campaign by Phelps, 73, comes as America debates the issue of sexual orientation and religion, a topic raised by the ordination next month of a gay Anglican bishop in New Hampshire. The monument also puts Casper in the middle of a legal dilemma now besetting many US cities.
In a ruling last year the federal appeal court covering Wyoming ruled that a town publicly displaying one kind of religious monument must allow others. And for 48 years Casper, also the home town of Vice President Dick Cheney, has displayed in its park a tablet of the Ten Commandments presented by the Eagles Club, a nationwide society of "Cold War veterans."
The Shepard family home in Casper is now the headquarters of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, formed "to help replace hate with acceptance, understanding and compassion."
This message was lost on Phelps and about 20 followers, who paraded outside the house on Friday with pink and black placards bearing slogans such as "no tears for queers." Today they are due to picket six churches in Casper including the Episcopalian church where Shepard's body is buried and which Phelps calls "a fag whorehouse."
Shepard's death deeply shocked America. A university student, he accepted a lift from two men in a Laramie bar. They drove him to a field, beat him savagely, lashed him to a fence and left him for dead. The next day he was taken to hospital in a coma, and he died five days later.
Shepard became the tragic hero of those who sought tolerance for homosexuals but the case only enraged Phelps. At Shepard's funeral he shouted "God hates fags" and last week he told reporters: "This poor little pervert was trawling for sex in a cowboy bar at midnight in Wyoming, and he gets himself killed. He's not a hero but an idiot. His mother and her foundation are feeding off his carcass."
Phelps, who has 13 adult children, believes overt homosexuals should be executed. He added: "God is glad that Shepard has gone to hell. You can call my language flamboyant but it is also biblical. To say God hates fags is a profound theological statement and I am prepared to defend it as a powerful truth. Being a fag is not an alternative lifestyle but forbidden by God as sodomite evil."
Shepard's mother Judy did not return telephone calls. Her spokeswoman, Sarah McMullen, said: "Our policy on Phelps is silence."
Casper city manager Tom Forslund said: "He keeps visiting Casper and making disparaging remarks and he has the right of freedom of speech. We also have the right to reject what he says."
Phelps may return to Topeka for now, but his monument will not go away. Casper's council will decide its future later this month but the appeal court ruling limits its options. In each case however, they plan to reject the monument.
Phelps is also a lawyer -- and he has a commendation from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for his civil rights work 30 years ago. Even if the park is denied him, he plans to buy land in Casper as a home for his granite insult.
"It will be ready in three weeks but I'm keeping its whereabouts secret because the fags would vandalize it."
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