An extremist antigay group wants to erect a monument in Lebanon, Pa., condemning a gay teenager in the small town who killed himself after being taunted by his peers and whose story became the subject of a documentary.
Fred Phelps, who leads the Topeka, Kan.-based Westboro Baptist Church, has formally asked the city for permission to install a six-foot pink granite edifice bearing the name of Jim Wheeler, a 1997 graduate of Cedar Crest High School and the subject of the film Jim in Bold. The proposed monument would read, in part: "In Loving Memory of Jim Wheeler, Entered Hell November 17, 1997, at age 19, A Suicide Who Defied God's Warning."
In a letter to Lebanon mayor Robert Anspach and the city council, Phelps suggested Monument Park, which has a Civil War memorial, or Fisher Park, which has a Vietnam veterans memorial, as suitable sites. Local officials said they will reject the proposal. "Mr. Wheeler was a fine resident of Lebanon County and an outstanding citizen. Let me assure you they will have to sue to get it up," said Lebanon County commissioner Bill Carpenter.
Shirley Phelps-Roper, Phelps's daughter and a Westboro spokeswoman, has said that the group is ready to sue if its monument is denied. The group has tried to erect similar monuments in Casper, Wyo.; Boise, Ida.; Greene County, Tenn.; and Topeka, Kan., to Matthew Shepard, a University of Wyoming student who was murdered in 1998 because he was gay. In those places, there were parks containing monuments to the Ten Commandments, and Phelps argued that one religious group cannot be denied the right to erect a monument when another was permitted. Those cases are still being fought.
In Lebanon, the monuments aren't religious, and that will bolster city officials' arguments in denying the request, city solicitor Scot Feeman said. "These parks are dedicated solely for war monuments," he said. "What they want to erect is so different, it will probably be denied. It is so easily distinguishable by the courts."
The documentary Jim in Bold has appeared at more than two dozen film festivals on three continents, and its makers hope to turn it into a teaching tool for schools.