The Belle Plaine City Council approved amendments Tuesday to a policy that will establish a free-speech zone at its Veterans Memorial Park, the site where a cross was removed last month after complaints that it violated the separation of church and state.
The council’s 3-1 vote put the official stamp of approval on a proposal to designate a portion of the park as a “limited public forum” that would accommodate up to 10 displays — religious or not — as long as they honor military veterans.
Council members hope minor language changes will help strengthen the policy in court should outside groups pursue legal action. The revised policy requires each proposed memorial to honor a veteran’s organization or soldier — living or dead — with ties to Belle Plaine, to have $1 million in liability insurance and to remain on the site for just a year unless owners renew the $100 application.
Officials would be required to post signs at Veterans Park, just off Hwy. 169, stating that the memorials represent the speech of the owners and not city officials.
On. Feb. 6, after weeks of public pressure, the council reversed itself and voted 3-2 to restore the cross to the park.
The symbol, originally attached to the silhouette of a kneeling soldier at a comrade’s headstone, was removed in early January after a resident complained. The Freedom From Religion Foundation also objected, arguing that a cross in a public park violates the constitutional separation of church and state.
The Wisconsin-based nonprofit has vowed to consider a lawsuit and submit its own “Atheists in Foxholes” monument.
A group with more than 100 pro-cross residents argued the cross was a secular symbol when placed in the context of a grave marker. “The few get to speak for the many and they are misconstruing the [cross’s] meaning,” said Katie Novotny, a vocal proponent who has stood guard at the park with dozens of protesters.
Cary Coop, the opposing council member at Tuesday’s meeting, worried about a pricey lawsuit. “This is a gamble that I don’t think the city should make,” Coop said. “I don’t think this is a good use of public money.”