Without discussion or fanfare, the Belle Plaine City Council voted Monday to eliminate the free speech zone it had created at Veterans Memorial Park, ending six months of controversy over the place of religion in public spaces.
“The park can now go back to honoring the veterans without conflict in our community between people of different beliefs,” Council Member Ben Stier said.
Any privately owned displays in the free speech zone — including the much-debated steel silhouette of “Joe,” a soldier kneeling by a cross — must be removed within 10 days, according to city officials.
“The original intent of providing the public space was to recognize those who have bravely contributed to defending our nation through their military service,” a city news release said. “In recent weeks and months, though, that intent has been overshadowed by freedom of speech concerns expressed by both religious and nonreligious communities.”
The debate surrounding the designated memorial space had “portrayed the city in a negative light” and “promoted divisiveness among our own residents,” the release said.
City officials, fearful of a lawsuit over the separation of church and state, in January ordered “Joe” removed. But many residents in the city of 6,700 opposed that action. Protesters camped out at the park for weeks, staking handmade crosses in the ground.
The city eventually returned the monument to the park and carved out a “free speech zone” there, which it opened to a handful of temporary memorials honoring veterans.
The Satanic Temple of Salem, Mass., and its fundraising arm, Reason Alliance, petitioned the city to install a monument to honor nonreligious service members — a cube inscribed with pentagrams topped with an upturned soldier’s helmet. That raised the ire of religious groups, and the sculpture hadn’t yet been erected.
Doug Wardlow, attorney for the “Defend Veterans Park” group, believed the “Joe” silhouette should have remained in the park because the cross represented a grave site rather than Christianity.
He proposed the free speech zone but suggested the city stipulate that contributors to the zone must be local. If that had been done, Wardlow said, “Joe” would still be in the park.
“I understand the council’s decision in light of what’s been going on in the community, specifically the out-of-state atheists’ groups attempts to use the free speech zone for political purposes in a very ugly way,” Wardlow said.
On Saturday, a Catholic group called America Needs Fatima organized a “Rosary Rally” to protest the satanic monument, which hadn’t yet been installed. More than 150 showed up to pray and sing.
Members of Minnesota’s Left Hand Path Community, a group previously affiliated with the Satanic Temple, were there to support the satanic monument. They were prepared to let the monument go, however, if all religious symbols were banned from the park, they said.
The creator of “Joe” unexpectedly removed the memorial before Saturday’s rally. Now, because of the City Council’s actions Monday, it appears it won’t return. The city didn’t say what, if anything, will happen to it.