Using Outrage to Raise a Debate

A Ten Commandments monument stood undisturbed and unprotested in a Boise, Idaho, city park for nearly 40 years, but now it is threatened by the actions of a conservative Christian minister.

The Rev. Fred Phelps, from Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., has chosen Boise and roughly 10 cities around the country to be locations for an anti-gay monument because those cities all have Ten Commandments monuments on city property.

He believes that, based on a federal court ruling, those cities have to allow his religious monument on city property because there is already another religious monument, his lawyer said.

Boise City Councilman Alan Shealy proposed returning the Ten Commandments monument to the group that gave it to the city in 1965, the Fraternal Order of Eagles, rather than get into a court fight with Phelps over what Shealy called a "repugnant" message.

But if Phelps had not arrived on the scene, Shealy said he never would have proposed removing the city's monument from the park.

"I wouldn't have, I know that for sure," he said. "I'm not one to stick my neck out for no reason. I'm not spoiling for a fight."

But it appears he might have one.

The City Council voted last month to move the Ten Commandments monument and newly elected Mayor Dave Bieter agreed, but a local Christian group led by the Rev. Bryan Fischer of the Community Church of the Valley is fighting the move, taking the issue to federal court.

Fischer is also pushing for recalls of the mayor and Shealy.

U.S. District Court Judge Edward Lodge did not give Fischer's group the restraining order it sought to stop the Ten Commandments monument from being removed from the city's Julia Davis Park, but the city decided to hold off on moving it anyway until Lodge issues his ruling, which is expected to come Monday.

Lawyer Says Monument Should Be Allowed

Phelps has sent letters to several cities around the country seeking to put up a monument on city property with a picture of a gay Wyoming college student who was killed in a gay-bias attack, with the words, "Matthew Shepard. Entered Hell October 12, 1998. In Defiance of God's Warning: 'Thou shalt not lie with mankind as with womankind; it is abomination.' Leviticus 18:22."

Because of the Biblical quotation the monument is considered religious, and should be allowed to stand in public parks where there are already religious monuments, said Phelps' daughter and lawyer, Shirley Phelps-Roper.

"That's basically the linchpin to it all, that they put up some religious monument in their public spaces, so they can't refuse ours," Phelps-Roper said.

She said she could not recall all the cities the group has sent letters to, but among them are Nampa, Idaho; Cheyenne and Casper, Wyo.; Greeneville, Tenn.; St. Paul, Minn.; and Lebanon, Pa.

In most of the cases when Ten Commandments monuments or plaques on public property have come under fire, it has been from advocates of separation of church and state, or civil liberties groups arguing that having government-sponsored religious displays are unconstitutional.

However, while constitutional scholars say that while the issue might seem to be about separation of church and state and about freedom of speech, it is really about the nature of the public forum the cities have created.

"The fact that Phelps' monument is or is not free speech may not be the question," Villanova University School of Law professor Gregory Magarian said. "The question may be, is Phelps' monument consistent with what the other things express in the forum?"

In Nampa, that is the argument the city is likely to use to refuse to let Phelps put up his monument.

'The Message Is Hate'

"Our Ten Commandments monument is part of a large veterans' memorial and it fits in well with the whole setup," Nampa city spokesman Dale Dixon said. "This guy's message fits nowhere and would be deemed inappropriate by the people of this city, and it definitely doesn't fit with the historical memorial honoring veterans."

Dixon said the city lawyers are reviewing Phelps' request, which he said "leaves a lot to be understood." There is no timetable for the city to act, but Dixon said the community's standards would never allow the monument to be put up in Nampa.

"When you hold that ruler up, it definitely does not stand up to the community standards of Nampa," he said. "The form of his message is hate, which is unacceptable, pure and simple."

In Boise, Fischer, who is also on the city parks commission, said his opposition to moving the Ten Commandments monument has nothing to do with support for Phelps' monument or its message.

"I was the one who made the motion to turn down his hate monument, so we have absolutely nothing in common with Fred Phelps," Fischer said.

He said he is angry because he feels the city gave up without a fight to "a hate-monger from Topeka."

But Shealy said he believes even without Phelps, the city would sooner or later have been forced to remove the Ten Commandments monument.

"This kind of monument is a lightning rod for controversy in our country," he said. "Our effort is to defuse this and remove this as a potential point of controversy."