by Dan Ruud
As early as next Tuesday (Feb. 21), the Belle Plaine City Council is expected to put its final stamp of approval on a resolution establishing a limited public forum at Veterans Memorial Park in Belle Plaine.
On Feb. 6, before one of the largest audiences ever to attend a city council meeting in Belle Plaine, the 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 has since been completed. That language is summarized below.
The cross honoring veterans at the park was removed last month by the city and Belle Plaine Veterans Club after members of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (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, the council was convinced to rethink its stand on the cross issue and to soon return it to the memorial at Veterans Park.
Andy Parrish of Belle Plaine, a spokesperson for the return of the cross, addressed the council at length at the Feb. 6 meeting. He then 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.
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 or requests for monuments from the FFRF or other groups will not follow. Vose, who also addressed the audience, did not make any such assurances either.
Meyer, along with council members Theresa McDaniel and Ben Stier, voted to pursue a resolution to legally return the cross to Veterans Park via a limited public forum policy. Council members Paul Chard and Cary Coop voted no.
Below is a summary of the proposed final wordage of the resolution that will be acted on by the council:
– A stone monument is located on the grounds of the park, constructed on public land, listing the names of Belle Plaine residents who gave their lives in service to their country in foreign wars – from the Spanish American War through the Vietnam War.
– The Council wishes to allow private parties access to Veterans Memorial Park for the purpose of erecting displays in keeping with the purpose of honoring and memorializing veterans.
– The Supreme Court of the United States has found that governmental entities are permitted to establish limited public forums permitting restrictions on speech that are reasonable in view of the purposes of the forum.
– The area for the limited public forum shall be the portion of Veterans Memorial Park that lies to the South of the Veterans Park Landscaping Sign. The area shall be 84 feet by 42 feet with lines parallel to the southernmost portion of the Veterans Park Landscaping Sign outer edge. No display may be placed within 7 feet from any edge of the Veterans Park Landscaping sign, the edge of a paved pathway, or any other memorial. Interested parties must submit an application to the City Administrator to erect a display within the limited public forum. The application must include a description of the display, including its dimensions and construction materials. No display may be installed without first obtaining a permit from the City.
– The City shall approve in writing and grant a permit to any party requesting to erect a display that conforms to the following requirements, except that the City shall not allow more than 18 displays in the limited public forum at any given time.
– Displays must be no larger than 3 feet wide by 2 feet deep by 3 feet tall.
– Displays must be constructed of stone, concrete, metal or some combination thereof.
– Displays must have a solid concrete base that is 4 inches thick and 3 feet wide by 2 feet long. The base must securely support the display at all times.
– Displays must serve the purpose of honoring and memorializing veterans.
– Displays must be respectful and conform to City Code pertaining to public nuisance and decency.
– The City shall process requests in the order they are received. If the City receives more requests than there are spaces available for displays, a waiting list will be created. Once space becomes available in the forum, the waiting list will be used to determine which application will be processed next.
– Displays must be removed within a period of one year from the date of approval. Prior to the expiration of the display period, the owner of the display may apply for another permit to display in the limited public forum. Such application will be treated the same as any other application, without any preference given.