The ashes of brutally murdered gay college student Matthew Shepard were interred in a ceremony at the Washington National Cathedral in the nation’s capital last week.
More than 2,000 people attended the Oct. 26 gathering at the second-largest cathedral in the country, and thousands more watched the livestream. Shepard’s parents, Dennis and Judy Shepard, said it took almost 20 years to find a permanent location for their child’s remains due to fears his burial place would be vandalized. Members of the notorious Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., picketed a funeral for Shepard in 1998.
“It is so important we now have a home for Matt,” said Dennis Shepard during the ceremony. “A home that others can visit. A home that is safe from haters.”
In 1998, 21-year-old Shepard, then a student at the University of Wyoming, was found badly beaten, tortured, and barely breathing, tied to a split-rail fence on a dirt road outside Laramie, Wyo. He died five days later at a hospital in Colorado. Police investigators initially said his attackers, Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney, targeted him because he was gay. Others, including investigative reporter Stephen Jimenez, later claimed there was evidence the murder was a drug deal gone bad. Jimenez, who is gay, wrote about his findings in the 2013 book, The Book of Matt: Hidden Truths about the Murder of Matthew Shepard.
In 2009, then-President Barack Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which expanded federal hate crime law to include sexual orientation, gender identity, and disability as protected classes.
Retired Bishop Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in The Episcopal Church, delivered the homily at last week’s ceremony. His address was pointedly political: He implored attendees to “go vote” and said simply honoring Shepard’s legacy was not enough.
“Violence comes in many different forms,” Robinson said. “And right now, the transgender community is the target. There are forces about who would erase them from America, deny them the right they have to define themselves. And they need us to stand for them.”
The Episcopal Church has ordained openly gay priests for more than 30 years. In 2015, the denomination’s General Convention instituted two new marriage rites for same-sex weddings. The Washington National Cathedral, a congregation of The Episcopal Church, states on its website that it “considers LGBT equality the great civil rights issue of church in the 21st century.”
Bible-believing Christians could be driven to annoyance or outrage by the interment of Shepard at the cathedral, “but that’s assuming that one thinks the National Cathedral is still a bastion of Christianity,” John Stonestreet, president of the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview, told me.
“We’re talking about religious leaders in a religious institution, but we’re not talking about really a Christian leader or a Christian institution,” said Stonestreet, who belongs to an Anglican church in the Convocation of Anglicans in North America, which broke away from liberal Episcopal Church. He said Robinson and the cathedral are a part of “left-edge extreme Episcopalianism” and “far over any line of orthodoxy.”
Stonestreet said that as a parent he could sympathize with Dennis and Judy Shepard’s desire to find a place for their son’s remains, but the cathedral used the ceremony “to venerate Matthew as a saint, and there is a real dispute over what kind of person Matthew was and over what led to his death.”
Shepard is one of approximately 200 people interred at the cathedral, including notable Americans such as Helen Keller and President Woodrow Wilson.