Shepard’s mourners deserve some peace

At 1:30 this afternoon, friends, family and other mourners will gather at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Casper, Wyo., to say farewell to Matthew Shepard, the gay University of Wyoming student who was barbarously murdered last week. Despite the pain and sorrow those who loved Matthew are feeling, members of the Topeka, Kan., Westboro Baptist Church, under the leadership of the Rev. Fred Phelps, plan to picket this somber occasion. Their decision should turn the stomachs of all Americans, whether they are for or against gay rights.
Phelps announced his intentions on the Westboro Baptist Church’s offensively named Web site, This will not be the first event Phelps’ followers have picketed, having appeared in the past at funerals for gay individuals and victims of AIDS, school board meetings, the “Ice Capades” and even President Clinton’s mother’s funeral. He has a history of showing up with his message of hate printed on placards reading things like “Fags are evil!” whenever he has a chance to draw media attention to himself.
Wyoming Gov. Jim Geringer has informed Phelps that he is “just not welcome,” but there is no legal recourse to block Phelps’ plans. When Phelps yells to Matthew’s parents that Matthew is “in hell, you know,” he will be exercising his constitutional rights. Despite the legality of such activities, common sense should convince anyone, and Phelps in particular, to refrain from them.
Phelps’ choice of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church for sharing his message is inappropriate, distasteful, callous and insulting. Matthew Shepard’s funeral is not a forum for political or social commentary. People will gather to celebrate Matthew’s short life, mourn a tragic loss and comfort his family. Respect and decorum demand they be given a chance to do this peacefully, without Phelps, his followers and the omni-present media circus that follows any tragedy bringing further anguish to an already tortuous time.
Respect for the dead may be an overrated concept, but respect for the living is not. Phelps’ presence will draw increased media attention to an event at which reporters and journalists never had any business. While the cameras may be passive when compared to Phelps’ sermonizing, they are just as inconsiderate. Some events do not need to be broadcast on national television. When a loved one dies, the survivors cannot proceed with their lives until they have had an opportunity to say farewell. Phelps and the media are robbing everyone of this chance.
We should all pause for a moment in our daily activities at 1:30 p.m. to say a prayer for Matthew and his family or at least to silently ponder this tragedy. It is difficult to decide whether Phelps should be despised or pitied, and perhaps some will do both. But one thing is certain — we should all be outraged by his antics. Those at the funeral must ignore Phelps and his message. Although the media should not be present either, hoping for their absence is impossible in our age. It is fair, however, to expect them to act compassionately at this time. By remaining unobtrusive and not turning the cameras on Phelps, they invalidate his violation of this solemn occasion and prevent him from reaching his real goal; seizing the spotlight.