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Fred Phelps' Effort May Dissuade Ten Commandment Displays

In a bid to display a monument decrying Matthew Shepard, hate preacher Fred Phelps manages to force Casper, Wyo. officials to remove a Ten Commandments monument from a public park to deny his request.

The Rev. Fred Phelps, America's most rabid and vicious hater of gays and lesbians, has turned his 12-year campaign of gay-bashing vitriol up a notch. The irony is that the self-described Baptist preacher may end up ridding the country of many of its public displays of the Ten Commandments as a result.

This fall, Phelps asked the City Council of Casper, Wyo., if it would accept a display he proposed to erect in a city park that already had a Ten Commandments monument.

The text on the plaque of Phelps' proposed display referred to Matthew Shepard, a gay University of Wyoming student who was savagely murdered five years ago because of his sexual orientation: "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."

Because the city already had allowed a private group to display the Ten Commandments in the publicly owned park, it would have to, under a series of Supreme Court decisions, allow other expressions of religious opinion there, too. Government may allow religious statements on public land, but only if it is neutral on the statements' content.

Casper officials flatly rejected Phelps, a disbarred lawyer who leads the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan.

In late October, they decided instead to move the Ten Commandments monument to a plaza that will contain a variety of "historic" documents. Courts have found that the government may sponsor displays of the Ten Commandments as part of larger, historic displays.

Days later, Phelps asked officials in tiny Rupert, Idaho, if he could buy a few square feet of the courthouse lawn to put up his monument. He got the idea after a pro-Ten Commandments group suggested that it buy a small part of the lawn in order to avoid the courts' prohibition against religious displays on public land.

Phelps also vowed to take his monument campaign around the nation, worrying officials in many towns with public Ten Commandments displays.

In Cheyenne, Wyo., for instance, officials took steps in early November to move a Decalogue monument from a city park to a small plot of public land, to be renamed the "Cornerstones of Law and Liberty Square," that already contained monuments to the Bill of Rights and the preamble to the Constitution.

Even as conservatives attempt to place more Ten Commandments monuments around the country, Phelps told a reporter in Rupert that it didn't bother him that his own campaign could undercut those efforts.

"My message is infinitely more important than the Ten Commandments," he said.