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Citizens packed the Belle Plaine City Council meeting on Monday night.
Steve Weatherbe

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Triumph of the Cross: Minnesota city’s council members vote to restore veterans’ memorial

Steve Weatherbe
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Attorney Doug Wardlow of the Alliance Defending Freedom
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Katie Novotny

BELLE PLAINE, Minnesota, February 7, 2017 (LifeSiteNews) – “You need to do what is right and what is just” was Andy Parrish's simple but passionate plea as he urged the city council to restore a cross removed from a steel sculpture honoring America's war dead after a secularist resident complained.

By a 3-2 margin on Monday night, the council did, sending a message, as Parrish said, “to the towns across America” under pressure from the Freedom From Religion Foundation to remove religious symbols from parks, cemeteries, or other public property.

The issue arose when FFRF threatened to take city council to court last summer over a new memorial installed in the city’s Veterans Memorial Park alongside a decommissioned military helicopter and a large plaque listing residents who died in the country’s service in past wars.

The contentious newcomer was a steel image of a Second World War infantryman, helmet doffed, rifle unslung, kneeling mournfully beside the cruciform headstone of a fallen comrade, created by local veteran Joe Gregory, who died last year.

The cross had to go or FFRF would obtain a court order making the city remove it because it violated the constitutional principle of the separation of church and state implicit in the First Amendment.

Last month, the city relented on the grounds the taxpayers’ money would be better spent on other things than legal fees and asked the statue’s owner, the Belle Plaine Veterans’ Club, to cut the cross off.

But as Parrish told city council, “Like that soldier, we are not afraid of a fight to defend freedom, our neighbors or our way of life.”

Facebook pages went up to rally support for the cross. Veterans from around the state came to stand vigil beside the altered statue. Hundreds of citizens put wooden crosses supplied by the Gregory family on their lawns. Hundreds of others bought full-scale steel replicas.  

Parrish also secured the crucial help of Alliance Defending Freedom, a national pro-bono law group famous for defending freedom of religion and expression.

At least 200 rallied outside city hall on Monday night and then packed council chambers to support Parrish and ADF lawyer Doug Wardlow, who drafted a motion that he said would allow the cross to be restored without opening the city to a lawsuit.

Wardlow told the council that Gregory’s sculpture never violated the First Amendment, which prohibits any level of government in America from “establishing” or supporting a religion. The cross was not an attempt to push Christianity but part of an artistic rendering of the scene repeated in American military cemeteries around the world, where crosses mark the graves of Christian GIs.

“There never was an establishment problem,” Wardlow said.

The problem was the threat of a lawsuit by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, he added. But to ensure the city was lawsuit-proof, Wardlow proposed the city create a “limited public forum” in the park, just big enough to hold five permanent private memorials.

There would be three limitations: that the memorials be made of stone or metal;  that they be consistent with the park’s purpose of commemorating the fallen; and that any individual proposing a memorial must be a Belle Plaine resident or any organizations proposing one must draw at least half its membership from Belle Plaine.

Such limited public forums had been used successfully elsewhere, he added, without challenge. What is more, the Freedom from Religion Foundation had apparently conceded they could not challenge the forum by submitting a written request to city council to amend the motion by removing the requirement for 50% local residency, thus allowing them to install a memorial to atheist wartime casualties.

Parrish urged city council to support the motion (and reject the FFRF’s request) not only to do what the people of Belle Plaine wanted, but to set an example for other local governments whenever they are bullied by an “out-of-state hate group.”

“Will we send the same message our veterans sent when they encountered bullies on the battlefield and looked into the face of evil. Which is ‘We come in peace, but if you attack we will win and we will take no prisoners.’”

However, when the presentations and questions had finished and the crowd waited expectantly, the council members did nothing. Nobody moved the motion. Parrish addressed them one more time, urging them to do the right thing, “stand up to their bully” and set an example.

Finally, council member Theresa McDaniel made the motion and it was quickly passed. Declared the mayor, Chris Meyer, “I’m a Christian, I’m a Catholic, and I’m going to vote my conscience.”

Rebecca Markert of the Freedom from Religion Foundation told LifeSiteNews that her group was “disappointed” at the decision but will wait to see what form the final policy takes, “determining first if that’s constitutional and, second, if it is constitutional, we are going to be seeking inclusion by putting up a veterans’ memorial to atheists.”

“I’m thrilled,” Parrish told LifeSiteNews. “We all acted just like this soldier. We didn’t want to fight, but we did and we won.”

Katie Novotny, who helped organized the resistance, said, “I’m elated. The right stuff took over and righted the wrong. The community really came together and if it is threatened again it will come together again.”

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