One of the first political problems facing the incoming mayor of Boise, Ida., Dave Bieter, will be an attempt by an extremist antigay church to erect a hate monument next to the city's own monument to the Ten Commandments. Civil libertarians say the city may have no choice but to accommodate both monuments--and maybe more.
Fred Phelps, who leads the Topeka, Kan.-based Westboro Baptist Church, plans to picket a prayer demonstration on December 13-14 at the city monument behind the band shell in Julia Davis Park. Phelps has formally asked the city for permission to install a six-foot granite edifice bearing the name and image of Matthew Shepard. The monument would say that Shepard went to hell because he was gay. Phelps's demonstration will coincide with a prayer rally that is expected to draw about 500 local people in support of a public secular display of the Ten Commandments.
The controversy will fall squarely into the lap of Bieter, an attorney and Democratic state lawmaker who takes over the nonpartisan office of mayor on January 6. "If the issue is erecting a monument that denigrates the memory of a murder victim, that's not welcome on any city property that we control," Bieter told the Associated Press on Tuesday. Although Bieter said he will be on a planned vacation in Spain's Basque country during the days of the demonstrations, he said he will make sure Phelps's group gets his message--that he should take his hateful group and go home. "That's what I'm saying," he said.
Shepard has no known connection to Idaho. He was from Casper, Wyo., and was attending college in Laramie when he was killed. Phelps, who picketed Shepard's funeral, has tried to obtain approval for similar antigay monuments in Casper and in Idaho's Minidoka County. In Casper the city council voted to move its Ten Commandments monument from a public park to a historic plaza. It's unclear whether that action will be enough to block Phelps's marker. In Rupert, Ida., county commissioners decided not to sell any of the courthouse lawn, either to Phelps or to another religious group that had sought to install a monument to the Ten Commandments.