A national watchdog group advocating for separation of church and state this week caused a Belle Plaine war veterans group to remove a cross from a memorial on city-owned property.

But now residents and members of the town's veterans club are fighting to get it restored.

In the past two days, several groups in support of the cross have said they will take their cause back to City Hall when the council meets on Feb. 6, saying the cross didn't carry religious overtones and therefore should be allowed back.

"This is a statue of a soldier holding a gun at a fallen grave site. It is not a crucifix," said Joe Burmeister, the man who carefully cut the cross out of the monument so it could easily be restored. "There is no religious reference. It's not meant to be religious. That is our argument."

Burmeister said he feels the cross "will be in place in next three weeks," but a lot of that hinges on what action the city takes next.

The flap developed in August when resident JoAnne Gill filed a police report questioning whether the cross was legal based on court rulings regarding church and state. The Freedom From Religion Foundation was behind the removal. The organization objected on constitutional grounds to the cross being in a public park.

"It's important for any memorial on government property to be inclusive and not exclusive," said Annie Laurie Gaylor, whose group is based in Madison, Wis. "There are many atheists in foxholes. We're not a Christian country, and Belle Plaine is not a Christian city."

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.

Vose on Thursday declined to comment about the cross coming down.

But residents have had a lot to say and have launched efforts to get the cross back.

"I wish it would have stayed," said Albert Koepp, treasurer of the veterans club. "I guess it was a mutual agreement so the city wouldn't get sued over it."

Koepp said feedback has been decidedly one-sided.

"A lot of people aren't happy about it," he said. "They want it put back up."

The monument features the silhouette of a kneeling soldier connected to a cross and a stone monument listing the city's fallen soldiers in many of the nation's military conflicts. It was made by Belle Plaine resident and veteran Joe Gregory, who donated it to the veterans club. Gregory died just two months ago. Over the past two days, the small town just southwest of the Twin Cities metro area has been in an uproar.

"A lot of people are turning in their graves" over this, Burmeister said. "People are mad at that group. It's not just us [the veterans club] but the whole city of Belle Plaine."

Every year the town holds memorial services in the park, and now that the cross has been removed Cmdr. Larry Ruehling wonders whether there is more action to come.

"It's a sad deal," he said. "Maybe we can't have a minister or priest in the park. How far can they go?"

This is not the first time the city had dealings with the Freedom From Religion Foundation. The group caused the city a few months ago to move a Nativity scene that had stood for years in front of the fire department off city property. "People hated this group before this [latest] issue came up," Burmeister said.

The cross incident has galvanized the town, he said. Scores have lashed out at the foundation on the Defend Veterans Park Facebook page. Already 440 people had signed an online petition in support of restoring the cross.Other towns such as Wadena, which was forced to move a Nativity scene, and Long Prairie, which donated land to the VFW because a cross was on public property, have been in a similar clash.

"All those towns have gone up against them and lost, because their pockets are deeper," Burmeister said.

But Belle Plaine, he said, intends to hold its ground and he hopes it can prevail.

In a worst-case scenario, Burmeister said the veterans club could buy the small parcel of land if it came to that.

"There is resolution to this, one way shape or form," he said.

Paul Walsh • paul.walsh@startribune.com

Tim Harlow • tim.harlow@startribune.com