B.P. Citizens Supporting Vets and Memorial are Fighting Mad
Thursday, January 26, 2017 8:58 PM
The Belle Plaine City Council’s decision last week to remove a Latin cross from a memorial in Veterans Memorial Park to fallen Belle Plaine soldiers has veterans and some residents steaming mad and willing to stand up for what they believe in.
Terry Buesgens (foreground), Ben Gregory (back left) and Emmett Luetmer (back right) were among a group that made 500 wooden crosses for people to display on private property as a show of support for Belle Plaine veterans.
Their angst was directed at a local citizen, the organization that requested the removal of the cross from public property and the city council that acquiesced to the group’s request the cross be removed.
The uproar was caused by the city council’s order that the cross be removed following a closed session between the council and City Attorney Bob Vose on Jan. 3. Last Monday (Jan. 16), Mayor Chris Meyer and City Administrator Mike Votca met with representatives of Belle Plaine veterans groups, who begrudgingly accepted the council’s directive that the Latin cross be removed from a memorial.
“We didn’t have any option the way they said it,” said Larry Ruehling, commander of Belle Plaine’s VFW post. “They’re caught between either we do it (remove the cross) or we get sued. It’s a very sad thing.”
The following day, the cross was carefully removed from the memorial made by the late-Joe Gregory, a U.S. Marine who fought in the South Pacific during World War II and was part of the occupation force in Japan after the war. Gregory created the memorial to honor those who served and died for their country. The memorial was installed last August. Gregory, who operated Joe’s Service in Belle Plaine for many years, donated the memorial to Belle Plaine’s veterans before his death last fall.
“As reported, this issue was first brought to the attention of the city in August of 2016,” said Meyer. “In the months that followed, numerous amounts of time were spent by the city attorney, city staff and the previous mayor and council with additional resources provided by the League of Minnesota Insurance Trust researching and compiling information. Many questions were asked, different scenarios considered – all with the goal of providing the needed information available for determining a decision in the best interest of Belle Plaine. The main piece of information that was brought forward was that legal action involving this type of issue is not covered by the city insurance coverage and would fall 100 percent back onto the taxpayers of this community. Some of the research looked at the possibility of donating or selling part of the land to the veterans, which also proved to be something that would most likely end up in litigation as shown by previous case law determination and again fell outside the policy coverages.”
News that the council decided to have the cross removed from the memorial spread quickly among Belle Plaine’s veterans and their supporters.
Unhappy with the council’s decision, Terry Buesgens, Gregory’s son-in-law, decided to make 500 wooden crosses at his shop in Belle Plaine Township. He was assisted by a group of others that included Ben Gregory, Emmett Luetmer, Tony O’Brien, Matt and Joe Ruehling.
On Thursday (Jan. 19), people supporting the veterans gathered downtown and received wooden crosses. The crosses were distributed at no cost to anyone who’d take them and display them on private property as a show of support to veterans.
The first batch of crosses delivered to Neisen’s Corner Bar didn’t last long.
“We thought it was a pretty good gesture. We wanted to do something to give back to the community,” Buesgens said.
Jason Lilleskov was among the group of residents who waited at Neisen’s Thursday morning for another batch of crosses. It was Lilleskov’s first-ever visit to the corner tavern.
“I think it’s pretty bad when they have to attack the veterans,” he said. “They went a little too far.”
The uproar over the cross began when Belle Plaine resident JoAnne Gill called police to question the legality of the Latin cross on city property shortly after it was installed in August. Gill, who made a similar objection to a Nativity scene on city property in December of 2015, said she was only asking if the cross on public property was legal and that if it is not, police should remove it.
Gill said via e-mail she wishes “nothing but love, peace, compassion, kindness and joy to everyone. Love one another.”
Ruehling said the stone monument at Veterans Park honoring the community’s war dead was the perfect place for the memorial – a silhouette of a soldier on bended knee, rifle in hand, honoring the gravesite of a fallen comrade.
When Gill’s request was not immediately granted, the Freedom From Religion Foundation asked the city to remove it. The city claims the foundation’s request constituted threatened litigation. The council directed the cross be removed from the memorial, a task assigned to veteran Joe Burmeister.
Gill says she did not call the Freedom From Religion Foundation. “I want all this to stop,” she said. “Love one another. I love everyone.”
Rallying the Troops
On Friday, Apple Valley resident Jeff Hom, known as “Capt. Democracy,” came to Belle Plaine to stand at the memorial, American flag in hand, in support of veterans. Other community members and groups supporting veterans standing vigil at the park have since joined him.
Last week, Ruehling received a call from an attorney, a veteran, from Alliance Defending Freedom. The organization is reportedly willing to take the case on a pro-bono basis and fight the Freedom From Religion Foundation in court, according to an anonymous post on the Facebook page, Defend Veterans Park.
Meyer said the city has not formally considered the potential of a group representing the veterans’ use of a city park.
“There is a group that made an initial contact to the city regarding possible legal representation (Alliance Defending Freedom) but a request for additional information to vet the process has never been forwarded,” he said.
Katie Novotny, one of several Belle Plaine residents who spent much of her weekend at Veterans Park, is among the citizens who want the city to fight for the veterans of the community.
“We elected him to do the right thing for the citizens of Belle Plaine,” she said of the mayor. “I know he’s obviously just come into this, but we want him to fight for this.”
Meyer defended the decision that the city grant Freedom From Religion Foundation’s request to remove the Latin cross.
“With the information and data provided, the council reviewed all the options to come to the determination of a decision that was mutually agreed upon with the local veterans organization. As a council, before a decision is made on this type of question, an in depth look at how this would affect the overall operating budget of the city while factoring in any type of legal expenses is reviewed. The truth of the issue is that had a different decision been made, an immediate re-structure of the budget would have had to be considered in the event of a lawsuit,” Meyer said. “If the legal action would continue into additional years as many of the past cases have proved, then there would either be a need to increase property taxes or make additional budget cuts to cover the legal expenses.
“As elected officials, we all took the oath of office to act in the best interest of all the citizens of this community that led to the only choice to ensure the financial well-being of the taxpayers,” Meyer continued. “We all ran for these positions to continue to keep Belle Plaine the great place to live and raise a family while providing safety, financial management and the necessary services. This is a federal issue that has been heard before the Supreme Court on numerous occasions and is outside the authority of a local municipality.”
Ruehling believes the veterans have few other options. If the city was to donate the land to the veterans, the vets would have to maintain it and pay property taxes on the land. That would create a financial burden the Belle Plaine veterans can’t handle, according to Ruehling.
A Unifying Action
If anything good came of the city council’s decision that the cross be removed from the memorial, supporters of veterans say the action has brought people together.
On a damp, chilly Saturday (Jan. 21), a group of people, including Belle Plaine residents and members of the Minnesota Freedom Fighters, gathered at Veterans Park. They presented a show of unity and support. Though the steel cross had been removed, several wooden crosses had been placed in the ground in defiance of the council’s directive.
“It’s been very unifying for our town to have someone care enough to come here from Apple Valley,” said Katie Novotny, standing next to Hom as he sat in a chair holding an American flag.
Novotny said she’s not interested in compromising her belief with another symbol replacing the cross as part of the memorial. “God didn’t compromise for us,” she said. “Once you let them start taking away our religion, our freedom, what’s the next thing?”
“As mentioned in an earlier statement, the city values all veterans regardless of race, creed or religion, and this was the main reason the park was developed,” Meyer said. “The city has a long history working with the local veteran organizations and looks to continue this as a great relationship moving forward.