Andy Parrish, a strong advocate for returning the cross to Veterans Park, addressed the city council at length Monday night.
Andy Parrish, a strong advocate for returning the cross to Veterans Park, addressed the city council at length Monday night.
by Dan Ruud
To the delight and applause of many dozens of people who squeezed into the city council chambers Monday night, the Belle Plaine City Council voted 3-2 to pursue a limited public forum at Veterans Memorial Park.
Mayor Chris Meyer directed the city attorney to draft the final language for the forum, which when finalized, will allow the “legal” return of the cross to the park, although future lawsuits are possible, particularly by the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF).
The public forum, under the proposed language, will accommodate up to five displays (religious or not) as long as they “honor military veterans.”
The council is expected to finalize the matter at its next regular meeting on Feb. 21. Voting in favor of the forum were Theresa McDaniel, Ben Stier and Meyer. Voting against it were Cary Coop and Paul Chard, the latter of whom expressed concern about the possible fiscal impact to the city should a lawsuit(s) become reality.
With many supporters in attendance, Andy Parrish, representing the Defend Veterans Park group, addressed the council Monday night.
“We’re here tonight because of an out-of-state group, driven by extremism, has attacked our Veterans Park. We’re here tonight not by choice, but because the residents of this city feel a sense of duty. Our veterans defended us and it’s now our duty to defend them.
“This cowardly hate group hides behind a perverted view of the First Amendment and uses that view to bully others,” Parrish continued. “They pick on small towns without the means to fight back. We did not seek this fight – they sought this fight and they made a terrible mistake,” Parrish continued.
The cross honoring veterans at the park was removed last month by the city and Belle Plaine Veterans Club after members of the FFRF, based in Wisconsin, demanded that the action be taken because the law clearly states that religious symbols are not permitted on government-owned property. Belle Plaine City Attorney Bob Vose recommended that the cross be removed to avoid potentially costly legal action by the FFRF.
Following immense outrage by the public, particularly on social media, there became reason for optimism for those who want the cross returned. The Defend Veterans Park group’s Facebook page on Friday stated:
IMPORTANT AND GREAT NEWS!!! I spoke (text) with the Mayor this morning. The City has used our proposal for a “Limited Public Forum” as a starting point for a solution to restoring our memorial. The proposal has been vetted by the League of Minnesota Cities and the city attorney . . .
“All memorials as laid out in this policy have to be respectful, made of stone or metal or some combination thereof; has to be consistent with memorials in other memorial parks, and the group requesting the memorial has to have at least 50 percent of its membership living in Belle Plaine,” Parrish told the council Monday.
“I beg you members of the council, do not drag this out any longer. Tonight, small towns across America are watching. Since they attacked us, the hate group has attacked towns in Mississippi and Michigan,” Parrish continued.
Parrish introduced Doug Wardlow, an attorney for Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), which has agreed to represent Belle Plaine (without charge) should any legal action be taken against the city for allowing the cross to be returned to Veterans Park. However, any potential penalties against the city would not be covered by ADF.
Wardlow stood by Parrish’s statements and described the group’s limited public forum proposal as a sound legal tool to defeat the FFRF. However, when asked, Wardlow could not fully assure that lawsuits from the FFRF or other groups will not follow. Vose, who also addressed the audience, did not make any such assurances either.
During much of Monday’s meeting, it did not appear that the council was ready to take action on approving the limited public forum. More than once Meyer asked the council if there was a motion to vote on the issue, for which no motion was made.
Chard said he was voted to the council “to protect” the people’s overall interest when it comes to city finances, and wants more assurances that legal action will not be taken against the city.
“Someone’s going to have to prove to me that there isn’t going to be a big lawsuit,” Chard said.
Parrish returned to the podium and said “not all fights involve money. Sometimes you have to fight for what’s right,” which drew applause from the audience.
Eventually, McDaniel made the motion to approve the limited public forum for Veterans Park, which was seconded by Stier. Although Meyer also expressed fiscal concerns during the discussions, he joined McDaniel and Stier in voting yes.
Chard said Tuesday morning that “I’ve always supported the Vets Club and all veterans and will continue to support them. I just hope the ADF doesn’t let the group and the taxpayers of Belle Plaine down.”
Coop, who joined Chard in voting no, was accused on the Defend Veterans Park Facebook page and elsewhere on social media of having contacted the FFRF about the cross at Veterans Park, which led to its removal. Coop, who did not make any statements Monday night other than casting his no vote, told the Herald Friday said he is opposed to religious displays on city property, but that he “did not” contact the FFRF.
Parrish had recently requested under the Minnesota Data Practices Act that the city review all phone and email and communications from Coop with the FFRF.
In responding to Parrish, City Administrator Mike Votca stated:
“I acknowledge that you would like your data practices act request to be all communications with Freedom From Religion Foundation to or from Council Member Coop . . . I requested that Mr. Coop provide me with any communications between him and the Freedom From Religion Foundation. He told me that he has had no communications between himself and the Freedom From Religion Foundation. I searched the city email data base for communications between Mr. Coop and the Freedom From Religion Foundation and could not find any data matching this request.”
The memorial the cross was a part of was made by the late-Joe Gregory, a U.S. Marine veteran. Gregory created the memorial to honor those from Belle Plaine who served and died for their country.
But FFRF’s complaint to the city of Belle Plaine read:
“In Veterans Memorial Park in the city of Belle Plaine, Minn., there is a display of a soldier kneeling before a Latin cross next to the Veterans Memorial Stone. This display was reportedly added to the park very recently.
“We certainly have no objection to veterans’ memorials,” continued the complaint. “But it is unlawful for a city government to display patently religious symbols on city property, even to commemorate our veterans. It shows an endorsement of religion over non-religion. Additionally, the memorial sends a message that the government cares only about the death of Christian soldiers and is disdainful of the sacrifices made by non-Christian and nonreligious soldiers, since it excludes the one-third of the population that identifies as such. Please act appropriately and move the religious display off city property.”
The FFRF, following a complaint in 2015 about the Belle Plaine Rotary Club’s Nativity Scene being located on police department property, was successful in that display being relocated to private property this past holiday season.
FFRF Vows to Continue Fight
The city of Belle Plaine received a letter from the FFRF on Friday in regards to the proposal to establish a limited public forum at Veterans Park. Some of the highlights of the letter addressed to the city and signed by FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca S. Markert include:
“We understand the City has been corresponding with attorneys from the religious right organization, Alliance Defending Freedom (“ADF”), whose main purpose for contacting the City is to restore the Christian symbol on public property. We understand ADF has submitted a draft policy proposal for the City to consider, which would create a limited public forum at Veterans Park. We write to urge the city of Belle Plaine to maintain the neutrality towards religion in the park and reject their proposed policy. FFRF believes the best policy, and the best way to avoid Establishment Clause and Free Speech legal disputes, would be for the City to refrain from opening up the park to unattended private displays by outside organizations or individuals.”
The letter then goes on to cite some examples of past cases where display forums “have caused divisiveness in some other municipalities.”
“Should the City (Belle Plaine) choose to adopt a constitutional limited forum for the park, please be aware that FFRF will ask to put up its memorial to ‘Atheists in Foxholes’ and other freethinkers who have served our country with valor and distinction, with hope that in the future humankind can learn to avoid all war – Freedom From Religion Foundation on behalf of Belle Plaine members.”
The letter continues:
“It is regrettable that Veterans Park has been used for a religious and political agenda for the past several months. Understandably, citizens will have differing views on such matters and they do not want their government facilities to serve as the center of debates about religion. The witch hunt that has ensued trying to identify our original complainant is upsetting and assuredly not representative of the good people of Belle Plaine. The divisiveness this entire matter has caused is reason enough to ensure religious imagery remains out of a public park.
“Thus, we hope that the City rejects the proposal to open up Veterans Park for displays by outside organizations and individuals. We will monitor Monday’s (Feb. 6) meeting with interest and consult with our local complainant regarding the results.”
Following Monday night’s action, it’s likely just a matter of time before the city hears again from the FFRF. But on the Defend Veterans Park Facebook page following the council’s vote, Parrish indicated that his group is up to any future challenges.
“Nothing I have done compares to what our veterans have done nor does it compare to what Theresa, Ben and Chris did. We must support them and defend their courage.”
Other Action Items
In other council items Monday night, Public Works Superintendent Al Fahey reported that Belle Plaine was one of 105 of 967 possible community water systems in Minnesota to receive an outstanding performance award from the Minnesota Department of Health.
“The Center for Disease Control and Prevention commends this water system for its consistent and professional adjustment of the water fluoride content to the optimum level for oral health for 12 consistent months. Consistent, high-quality water fluoridation practice, as demonstrated by this water system, is a safe and effective method to prevent tooth decay, improving the oral health of community residents of all ages,” stated the award certificate.
*Fahey also reported that his department continues to work on removing multiple layers of paint from the Veterans Park helicopter, which has been kept at the public works facility since its removal from Veterans Park last September. “We should be able to get it out to be painted in the next couple of weeks,” Fahey stated.
*Unanimously accepted the resignation of Belle Plaine Park Board Member Kathy Joerg and appointed alternate Ryan Herrmann to serve in her place.
*Unanimously approved a large assembly permit for Belle Plaine’s annual St. Patrick’s Parade and festivities that will take place downtown on Saturday, March 18.
*Unanimously approved a temporary 3.2 percent intoxicating liquor license permit for a fund-raising event that will take place at St. John Lutheran Church on Sunday, Oct. 15.
Due to the Presidents’ Day holiday, the next regular meeting of the Belle Plaine City Council is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 21 in the City Hall building at 218 North Meridian Street downtown.