Atheist group demands cross to be removed from Vets’ Memorial; city agrees, residents organize to fight back
The original display of a soldier kneeling with his rifle featured a cross gravestone marking. Local veteran Joseph Gregory created and donated the artwork to the Belle Plaine Veterans Memorial Park. Gregory passed away in October.
Belle Plaine City Administrator Mike Votca told Alpha News that the city is working with the Belle Plaine Veterans Club on improvements to the Veterans Memorial Park. According to Votca, the city council approved all past improvements made by the club. However, the soldier and cross display was installed in the park in August without the council’s knowledge or approval.
The demand for removal of the cross started with a complaint made to the Belle Plaine police department. According to the official police report, on August 18, 2016, Belle Plaine resident Joanne Gill called the police department and questioned whether the cross was legally installed on public property.
The police officer taking the call asked if Gill found the cross offensive; she said she did not find it offensive, but stated that the cross needed to be removed if it was illegally placed. She then, “advised me (the officer) that I should do my job in enforcing the law.” The issue was given to the city administrator for legal review.
The group, Freedom from Religion Foundation sent a formal letter of complaint against the display to the city council. FFRF released a statement about the display on its website:
“We certainly have no objection to veterans’ memorials. But it is unlawful for a city government to display patently religious symbols on city property, even to commemorate our veterans. It shows an endorsement of religion over nonreligion. Additionally, the memorial sends a message that the government cares only about the death of Christian soldiers and is disdainful of the sacrifices made by non-Christian and nonreligious soldiers, since it excludes the one-third of the population that identifies as such.”
The city council held a closed-door meeting about the complaint on Jan. 3, citing attorney/client privilege as the reason to keep the meeting closed to the public and media. According to the Belle Plaine Herald, neither Mayor Chris Meyer nor City Administrator Mike Votca disclosed any information from the meeting. The two were in attendance at the Jan. 16 Belle Plaine Veterans Club meeting where the veterans representatives took the recommendation by City Attorney Bob Vose to remove the cross from the display.
According to Votca, the reasons for the decision to remove the cross from the display included the costs that could be incurred by a court battle with FFRF to keep the cross in the park, and that the city leaders “understand what the law states, and we want to be inclusive.”
Belle Plaine residents expressed disappointment with the city’s decision to remove the cross on the Belle Plaine Vet’s Club Facebook page. A group of citizens, lead by Andy Parrish, former Chief of Staff and campaign director for US Representative Michele Bachmann, started a Facebook page on Wednesday afternoon called “Defend Veterans Park.” The page already has more than 1000 “likes.”
Parrish said in an interview with Alpha News, “The vets defended us; it’s time now for us to defend them.” The group connected with Action4Liberty and the Alliance for Defending Freedom to help the cause.
Parrish also told Alpha News that the group hopes to raise awareness of the issue and to “pack the city council meeting” on Feb. 6, where they plan to demand that the city sell the Veterans Memorial Park to the Belle Plaine Vets Club for $1 and charge the club $1/year for the park’s maintenance. City Administrator Votca told Alpha News the city council would consider a purchase plan for the park.
A petition has also been launched on ipetitions.com. Titled “Return Our Cross Now” the petition states:
“Out-of-State atheists have no right to tell our town how to live and JoAnne Gill does not get to make decisions for the entire city. To avoid a recall campaign of elected members of the city, we as citizens of Belle Plaine demand the city council return our cross to Veterans Park NOW and issue a formal apology to us, your fellow citizens.”
Family members of Joseph Gregory will be at Neisen’s Corner Bar in downtown Belle Plaine starting at noon today to hand out crosses to Belle Plaine residents who would like to show their support for the Vet’s Memorial by displaying a cross in their yards.
This is not the first time the FFRF and Joanne Gill have complained to the city of Belle Plaine regarding religious displays on public property. During the 2015 holiday season, Gill and the group made a complaint regarding the Belle Plaine Rotary Club’s Nativity scene displayed on police department grounds. The city allowed Gill to place a banner in the area that stated “At this season of the Winter Solstice, let reason prevail. There are no Gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is but a myth & superstition that hardens hearts & enslaves minds.” In 2016, the Nativity scene was moved to a new location on private property.
Alpha News attempted to reach Gill, but the number listed is no longer working.
Alpha News is reaching out to several people involved with the city and the veterans memorial. Subscribe to Alpha News for continued updates.
UPDATED 01/19/2017 12:13PM