A Kansas church is bringing its anti-gay message to town today and will donate a monument condemning Matthew Shepard to Kootenai County for its courthouse lawn.
Kootenai County Commission Chairman Dick Panabaker said members of Rev. Fred Phelps’ Westboro Baptist Church are welcome to picket the courthouse but the county wants nothing to do with the granite monument condemning the Laramie, Wyo., gay man who was murdered in 1998.
“We aren’t interested,” Panabaker said. “We don’t have to necessarily support the lifestyle, but we want nothing to do with that.”
Fred Phelps Jr., the Baptist reverend’s son, is organizing the 7:45 a.m. picket in front of the courthouse at Government Way and Garden Avenue and isn’t sure who will attend other than himself and his wife, Betty Phelps. The couple, who celebrate their 30-year wedding anniversary today, will then take their message – that all gays are going to hell – to Ellensburg and Seattle this weekend.
“Our mission is to get the Bible side of the issue out,” said Phelps Jr., who lives in Topeka, KS. “The whole country is immersed in the notion that Matthew Shepard was some kind of hero.”
Church members, many of whom are Rev. Phelps’ 12 children, travel across the country to denounce homosexuality. Shirley Phelps-Roper who was traveling back from a Massachusetts protest said this week is especially important because Massachusetts began handing out marriage licenses to same-sex couples at midnight Monday. The state’s highest court ruled in November gays and lesbians must be allowed to marry.
Phelps Jr. said the church picked Coeur d’Alene because it has a Ten Commandments monument already on the courthouse grounds. He said Kootenai County must legally accept the six-foot granite monument with a bronze plaque inscribed with Shepard’s face because of a 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling. The ruling states that a city displaying a Ten Commandments monument also must display monuments espousing other beliefs.
The chiseled monolith reads “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 and 20:13.”
The church has offered the monument to other cities and counties across the country including Boise and Nampa. Phelps has threatened to sue Boise because the city’s Parks and Recreation Commission last year denied the church’s request for the anti-gay monument. The city agreed to remove the Ten Commandments from the park before allowing the anti-gay monument.
Phelps Jr. said the church is looking for a good case to test the law. Asked what the church would do if Kootenai County or Coeur d’Alene refused the monument, Phelps Jr. said, “We just take them one at a time and see how it develops. The law is real clear.”
Coeur d’Alene city police don’t plan to staff the protest, but would respond if called. The Kootenai County Sherriff’s Department also plans to monitor the event by scanner but the courthouse is in the jurisdiction of the city police.
“We are aware of the … pastor,” Lt. Kim Edmonson of the Kootenai County Sheriff’s Department said. “From what we’ve been told, it’s not expected to last too long.”
Phelps Jr. said church members will carry signs outlining their message and sings songs.
Phelps-Roper, who isn’t attending the event, said the church has changed the words to “America the Beautiful” to include passages such as “Wicked land of sodomites you’ve reached the bottom rung” and “The Army is full of fags. You will never win another war. They are coming home in bags.” They also changed the words to “God Bless America.”
Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations spokesman Tony Stewart said North Idaho has fought hate for years and this is no different.
“We as a people will reject the hate that will be coming to our community,” Stewart said.
Stewart added that he recently attended a speech by Matthew Shepard’s mother, Judy Shepard, at Gonzaga University and she answered a question regarding Rev. Phelps’ monuments condemning her son. Judy Shepard speaks state-to-state in support of hate-crime legislation.
“She showed so much kindness in the face of hate,” Stewart said.
Phelps Jr. said he was traveling to Ellensburg to speak against Rev. Karen Dammann, a lesbian Methodist pastor who was acquitted in March in a church trial over her admittedly homosexual relationship. Dammann of the First Methodist Church in Ellensburg disclosed three years ago that she was in a homosexual relationship. She got married March 11 to her partner of nine years in Portland, where officials began allowing gay marriages. The couple has a five-year-old son.
“I can’t believe there’s a Methodist lesbian preacher in Ellensburg that’s made national headlines,” Phelps Jr. said. “You just never know where you will have this situation pop up.”
A press release announcing today’s picket stated that the church plans to donate the monument to the city of Coeur d’Alene to go along with its Ten Commandments monolith. The city has no Ten Commandments monument and Phelps-Roper said the church got bad information and meant to list Kootenai County.
Coeur d’Alene Deputy Attorney Warren Wilson said that nobody from the Kansas church had contacted the city or offered to donate an anti-gay monument.
Reporter Kevin Taylor contributed to this report.