BELLE PLAINE, Minnesota, February 2, 2017 (LifeSiteNews) – Hundreds of Belle Plaine citizens are expected to crowd the city council chambers on Monday evening to back a motion allowing a contentious cross to be welded back onto the steel statue of a mourning soldier in the city’s Veterans Memorial Park.
The veterans’ club, which installed the metal sculpture last year, removed the cross (depicting an overseas U.S. military gravesite) early this month to save the city from a lawsuit threatened by the Freedom from Religion Foundation.
The Wisconsin-based secularist group specializes in using the First Amendment, which prohibits the American government from establishing or promoting religion, to remove symbols such as statues, crosses and replicas of the Ten Commandments from public buildings and properties. The FFRF became involved at insistence of a Belle Plaine resident.
Citizens and veterans from other communities have literally rallied around the memorial, congregating in the park beside the damaged statue daily by the dozens and planting wooden crosses beside it. Each night the crosses are removed so that city workers will not have to do so.
Residents have bought more than 350 full-sized steel replicas of the memorial – with cross intact — and placed them on their own front lawns and in shop windows and stuck decals on vehicle windows showing the same image. They have also displayed three-foot wooden crosses made by the family of the original artist and veteran, Joe Gregory, who died after donating the sculpture to the veterans’ club last year.
“There has been an outpouring of support from every part of the community,” said Katie Novotny, who put up the Defend Veterans’ Park Facebook page to rally the resistance. “Every walk of life. Republicans and Democrats. White-collar workers and blue collar. People are angered at what happened.”
Andy Parrish, who enlisted the help of the Alliance Defending Freedom to draft a policy proposal for the city that should allow the cross to be restored, is telling people, “If approved, we will need someone to weld the memorial back together so it can get back up Monday night!”
The ADF is a pro-bono legal organization dedicated to protecting freedom of speech, religion and assembly. Its legal counsel, Doug Wardlow, told LifeSiteNews that the courts have ruled that both “government speech” and “private speech” can take place on government property, but the former has to be free of religious expression. There can be religious content in private speech if its purpose is consistent with that of the public building or property.
The policy designates a “limited public forum” where expressions of “private speech” are permitted so long as it “honors veterans and memorializes those who paid the ultimate sacrifice.”
Other courts, Wardlow said, have allowed replicas of the Ten Commandments to be displayed in courthouses. Similarly, the statue of the soldier kneeling beside a grave marker in the shape of a cross “is not an expression of religion.”
Instead, Wardlow said, it is a way to express respect for veterans and for those who died serving their country in an appropriate way in keeping with the traditions of the country – and the tradition of marking their gravesites with memorial crosses by the hundreds of thousands across Europe, North Africa and the Pacific.
“We believe this is the best way to go forward,” Wardlow said. “We are confident the city will be able to allow the cross to be put back without facing a court action.”
Wardlow will join a rally across the street from City Hall at 5:30 p.m. local time on Monday. Already, 37 people have used the Defend Memorial Park Facebook page to sign up to attend and another 85 are “interested.”
But Katie Novotny told LifeSiteNews that she expects to jam council chambers Monday night with hundreds of people wanting the cross put back.
“It’s really brought the community together,” she said.
And on the same Facebook page, Parrish added, “I am so proud of you Belle Plaine. I’m proud to call you my neighbors. And I am proud to call this town my home.”