Commandments Create Chaos in Casper (November 2003)

A September complaint by the Freedom From Religion Foundation to the city of Casper, Wyo., on behalf of area members over a Ten Commandments monument in a city park, resulted in a 5-4 vote on Oct. 28 to remove the monument. However, the mayor broke ranks and subsequently voted with pro-Ten Commandments council members to put the monument in temporary storage, while the city creates a new public home for the bible edicts. A city-owned “monument plaza” would feature monuments “vital to the historic development of American law.”

Casper council members based their second vote on a 2001 federal court decision in an ACLU case in Grand Junction, Colo. Officials there moved a Ten Commandments monument from city hall to a city-sponsored area with monuments supposedly devoted to U.S. legal history.

That decision, which was not appealed, occurred prior to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals decision in 2002, in a case out of Utah, advising that if a city hosts a Ten Commandments monument, it must permit other groups to place their own monuments on city land. Wyoming, Utah and Colorado are part of the 10th Circuit.

The Casper monument was donated by the Fraternal Order of Eagles in 1965. The club offered to take the monument off city hands following the Foundation complaint. Complicating the request was the bizarre intervention of Rev. Fred Phelps of Topeka, Kan., a rabid, publicity-seeking, anti-gay Baptist who routinely pickets funerals of AIDS victims. After reading about the 10th Circuit decision and the Foundation’s state/church complaint, Phelps contacted Casper officials demanding to be allowed to place his own monument on public property.

He proposed a marble marker bearing an image of Matthew Shepard, saying, “Matthew Shepard entered Hell Oct. 12, 1998, in Defiance of God’s Warning: ‘Thou shalt not lie with mankind as with womankind; it is abomination.’ Leviticus 18:22.” Phelps has regularly visited Casper on the anniversary of the death of Shepard, a Casper native. The 21-year-old gay college student was brutally pistol-whipped and left to die on a fence in rural Wyoming in one of the United States’ most notorious hate crimes. Phelps’ request was turned down by the council on Oct. 28, giving the minister grounds to sue.

Phelps announced plans in October to “pock-mark this nation from sea to shining sea with this message.” Phelps is currently asking to place his homophobic monument in an Idaho county currently considering an American Legion request to erect a Ten Commandments monument on a courthouse lawn.

Pointed out Foundation spokeswoman Annie Laurie Gaylor: “If a city ‘blesses’ ten of the 600 commandments supposedly given to Moses by the Old Testament deity, how can it then say to Rev. Phelps that the barbaric Mosaic laws regarding homosexuality are not also ‘historic’? The Mosaic laws are replete with savage and inhumane instructions, such as to kill gays, non-virgin brides, ‘stubborn sons,’ blasphemers, etc. “The city has opened a can of worms with its First Amendment entanglement. It is now compounding the violation by erroneously claiming the Ten Commandments are part of U.S. legal history. The First Commandment (‘Thou shalt have no other gods before me’) so clearly violates the First Amendment,” Gaylor said.

The Foundation is looking for Casper-area individuals willing to be named plaintiffs in a potential Foundation lawsuit. Please contact the mayor and urge her to reconsider her vote in favor of moving the Ten Commandments monument to a “monument plaza.” Moving the bible edicts off public land would end the debate, and give Phelps no case.

Freedom From Religion Foundation