A legion of American flag-toting Belle Plaine residents have taken it upon themselves to stand guard over the local veterans memorial, rebelling against the city’s decision to remove a cross from a tribute to fallen soldiers.
The rotating “security detail” has come and gone for more than a week, protesting a decision to remove the tribute after it drew a complaint from the Freedom From Religion Foundation. The nonprofit, founded in Wisconsin, describes itself as a national association of about 23,000 “atheists, agnostics and skeptics of any pedigree.”
The foundation had argued that the veterans display, located on city property, violated the separation of church and state.
“It’s a grave marker — in this instance, it’s not a religious symbol,” said resident Katie Novotny, who comes from a long line of veterans. Heavily bundled, Novotny carried a flag in front of the monument, which depicted the silhouette of a soldier kneeling at the grave of a fallen comrade. The headstone, originally marked by a cross, has been cut off.
Many in the small town, located 45 miles southwest of Minneapolis, are outraged. Almost overnight, dozens of wooden crosses popped up in private business windows, on mailboxes and in front yards. More than 1,200 people have signed an online petition in support of restoring the cross.
Free-speech advocates, members of the veterans club and motorcyclists with a club called the Second Brigade have all taken turns protecting the site from vandalism.
“It’s awakened the community,” said Red Bartholomew, of Crystal, who oversaw the memorial for several hours Tuesday, wearing a stars and stripes bandanna and a shirt paying homage to the Declaration of Independence.
“In this day and age, [military service] doesn’t seem to be as appreciated,” Bartholomew said. “So when the opportunities come, we need to pay our respects.”
Every few minutes, a motorist passing by the memorial would honk in support or blare patriotic music. Several residents stopped to chat, shake hands and thank those guarding the site for “sticking up for what’s right.”
Some came to slip money in the volunteers’ pockets. Others donated coffee and doughnuts.
On Sunday, a total of 18 wooden crosses were pounded into the ground around the monument. By the next morning, each one had been removed. A gold necklace bearing a cross was also reported stolen from the grounds.
The flap developed in August when Belle Plaine resident JoAnne Gill filed a police report questioning whether the cross was legal. The Freedom From Religion Foundation objected on constitutional grounds to the cross being in a public park.
In response, Belle Plaine City Attorney Robert Vose replied in a letter that the soldier and cross were neither installed nor approved by the city, but rather “constitutes speech or expression by the Belle Plaine Veterans Club,” which initiated the park’s use as a memorial site at least 15 years ago.
Novotny, who described Belle Plaine as a primarily Christian town, argued that the cross, taken in context, had little to do with religion.
“There’s a difference between plunking a cross down in one of our kids’ playgrounds and putting it in front of a fallen soldiers memorial,” she said. “[Gill] picked the wrong topic in the wrong town.”
Source Machine Inc., a manufacturing plant in Burnsville, will deliver 400 copies of the original metal statue — cross and all — to the veterans club this week. They will be sold for $40 each.
“We only thought we’d be making 20 of these,” said Jill Wenninger, a Belle Plaine native who works at the shop. “It has nothing to do with religion or politics, we just wanted to help them out.”
Belle Plaine Mayor Chris Meyer could not be reached Tuesday for comment. Supporters intend to take their cause back to City Hall when the council meets Feb. 6.
A rally is planned that evening. Meantime, flag bearers said they will return each day, if they have to, until the cross is restored.