A war memorial depicting a soldier kneeling by a cross has been pulled from — and may not return to — a Belle Plaine park, potentially ending an emotional battle over religious symbolism in public spaces.
The 2-foot steel statue, entitled “Joe,” was removed by its creator’s family a day before dueling observances Saturday at Veterans Memorial Park. Its return now is threatened by a Belle Plaine City Council proposal that also would block an anti-religion group from moving ahead with plans to install a satanic monument nearby.
That memorial, a black cube inscribed with pentagrams and topped with an upside-down soldier’s helmet, was proposed and approved after the city opened the door by removing, then reinstating “Joe” earlier this year. The satanic monument could have been the first of its kind erected on public property in the United States.
On Monday, however, the City Council is expected to act on a resolution rescinding a “public forum” area created in the park to allow for religious statues. It was there in a small grassy plot beneath a hill where “Joe” was installed and where the Satanic Temple’s monument would be erected.
Atop the hill on Saturday, more than 150 people attended an hourlong “rosary rally” organized by America Needs Fatima, a Catholic nonprofit. They prayed, many on their knees, while some carried signs, one reading: “Satan belongs in hell, not Veterans Memorial Park.”
Sitting on a picnic blanket nearby were supporters of Minnesota’s Left Hand Path Community. They have defended the satanic monument, but were prepared to let it go if the city were to reverse course by deciding to bar all religious symbols from the park.
Leaders from both groups were unaware of details of the City Council’s proposal until informed Saturday by a Star Tribune reporter.
Bernard Slobodnik, an organizer for America Needs Fatima, said any move by the council to block the satanic memorial could not have happened if not for opponents crying out loudly.
Koren Walsh, a Left Hand Path Community member, stopped short of proclaiming victory for her group.
“I guess it’s a victory for freedom from religion and for the separation of church and state,” she said.
Controversy over the memorials has dogged officials in the town of 6,700, which is about 45 miles southwest of Minneapolis.
In January, the city removed “Joe” for fear of a lawsuit rooted in the constitutional separation of church and state. But many residents opposed the city’s actions. For weeks, protesters camped out at the park, staking handmade crosses in the ground.
In April, the city reinstated “Joe,” complete with its cross.
Then, in an attempt to quiet the turmoil, the city carved out the free-speech public forum zone in the park, open 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. Satanic Temple founders say they don’t actually worship Satan, but want equal treatment for atheists and other nonbelievers.
As Saturday’s events neared, City Council Member Ben Stier said he was weary of the debate and hinted that a change could be in the works.
The proposal before the council on Monday does away with the public forum zone, and cites the potential for vandalism and a reduction in “the safety, serenity and decorum of the park” as among the reasons why.
Slobodnik and Walsh both said they’d have to wait and see.
Staff writer Erin Adler contributed to this report.