Belle Plaine council nixes religious memorials; priest says decision caves to Satanic Temple

| July 20, 2017 | 5 Comments

Controversy around the monument “Joe” in Belle Plaine’s Veterans Memorial Park led the city to add a limited public forum to its park in February. After the months of contorversy with a Satanic memorial from the Massachusetts-based Satanic Temple coming to “free speech zone,” the council voted unanimously July 17 to eliminate the space in the park. The “Joe” statue was removed before the July 17 meeting. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Two days after hundreds of people — many of them Catholic — from around the country descended on Belle Plaine to protest the installation of a Satanic memorial in the city’s veterans park, the city council voted unanimously July 17 to rescind a designation that made a portion of the park available for monument commissions from any religious group.

The decision blocked the arrival of the monument commissioned by The Satanic Temple, but it also sealed the departure of the “Joe” monument, a small iron-cast silhouette of a soldier kneeling on one knee in front of a cross gravemarker. Joseph Gregory, a local veteran who died in October 2016, made the memorial.

“It’s an outcome I can live with,” said Father Brian Lynch, pastor of Our Lady of the Prairie in Belle Plaine, “but it’s far from a perfect outcome” because the “Joe” statute also had to go. The statue and proposed Satanic memorial became the center of a controversy that made national headlines.

It began in August 2016, when the Belle Plaine Vets Club placed the “Joe” statue in the park. A Belle Plaine resident and Freedom From Religion Foundation member complained about “Joe” looking too religious for public property. The city council had the monument’s cross removed at the request of the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation.

Vets Club members filled a Feb. 6 city council meeting to request the cross’ return. A 3-2 council vote created a limited public forum area in the park, which allowed “Joe” to have the cross back. The designation provided a place where any religion could erect a memorial in the park. The Freedom From Religion Foundation then invited the Massachusetts-based Satanic Temple to commission a memorial for the Belle Plaine park. The city approved the application. The memorial commissioned by The Satanic Temple — which claims no belief in Satan as a being — was recently completed, but it had yet to be sent to Belle Plaine. Its design included occult symbolism.

A rendering of the proposed veterans memorial commissioned by the Satanic Temple for Belle Plaine’s Veterans Memorial Park. Courtesy/the Satanic Temple

Concerns over the Satanic memorial most recently drew hundreds of people to a rosary rally and an adjacent counter rally at Veterans Memorial Park July 15. America Needs Fatima, an independent Pennsylvania-based Catholic organization, held the rosary rally, while Minnesota’s Left Hand Path community, which includes Satanists, held a counter rally in support of The Satanic Temple’s monument.

America Needs Fatima rally organizer William Siebenmorgen, a Pennsylvania resident, said the rally drew 250 people from around the country — including Arkansas, Illinois, Kansas and Kentucky —  for the rosary, hymns and prayers.

“The issue is really not about a free speech zone, it’s about trying to prevent Satanism from gaining acceptance,” said Robert Ritchie, America Needs Fatima executive director. Ritchie did not attend the event.

The two rallies coincided with Belle Plaine’s town festival parade on nearby Main Street, a decision Father Lynch questioned.

“They were basically asking [local] people to choose between going to the parade or going to [the rally],” said Father Lynch, who assisted with a June 3 prayer service at the park, as well as Mass and adoration at the parish June 5 to oppose the Satanic memorial. “I think many of us [in Belle Plaine] tire from having people from the outside telling us how to do things.”

He said he’s received many calls from out of town regarding the Satanic memorial and noted that America Needs Fatima never called the parish about hosting a rally. He couldn’t participate in the rally but supported parishioners who wanted to. Ritchie said they normally don’t contact local parishes about hosting rallies in communities.

Outside input also wore on city officials, and top officials put the resolution to remove the park’s limited public forum on the July 17 agenda four days before the meeting. According to Ritchie, America Needs Fatima sent a petition with about 23,000 signatures to the city opposing the Satanic memorial. Interim city administrator Dawn Meyer told the Belle Plaine Herald that “city hall received about 300 calls” July 12 alone about the Satanic memorial.

She also told the Herald that the “controversy has limited the city staff’s ability to complete tasks.” The Herald also mentioned that she and Belle Plaine Mayor Christopher Meyer —no relation to Dawn — spoke with Belle Plaine veterans about the decision to remove the limited public forum.

Dawn Meyer declined to comment for The Catholic Spirit. A council press release on the July 17 decision stated that limited public space had been designated to honor veterans, it but had been “overshadowed by freedom of speech concerns expressed by both religious and non-religious communities.”

The city’s statement added that it “promoted divisiveness among our own residents” and “portrayed our city in a negative light.” The release also mentions that the council had the support of veterans’ organizations in removing the space.

Gregory’s family had the “Joe” memorial removed before the July 15 rally and counter-rally. Family members were unavailable for comment.

Father Lynch believes the city’s decision doesn’t end a fundamental battle that took place — taking Christian symbolism out of the public square. He said The Satanic Temple and Freedom From Religion Foundation “got what they wanted” with the removal of “Joe.”

“They are childish,” Father Lynch said. “There’s no real desire for Satanists to honor vets. It’s intended to cause disruption in the community so that people cave in and remove any Christian imagery from public places.”

He added: “There’s a desire to reframe the country as a country without religion.”

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  • Mythblaster

    What the council “caved” to was a sense of fair play. Having decided to open the area as a public forum, they couldn’t very well open it for one point of view without opening it up to others, as well.

    I’ll let the priest in on a little secret… the Satanists really don’t believe Satan exists. He’s a character in the Christian play-book, and the “Satanists” are merely using Christianity’s beliefs of The Evil One to combat Christianity’s claim of persecution.

    As Inigo Montoya famously said, repeatedly, “I do not think that word (persecution) means what you think it means.”

    NOTE TO THE PRIEST: If you’re not capable of getting the Lord’s word out without the support of a cheezy “dime-a-dozen” monument installed in a public park, you really ought to hang up your collar, ’cause you’re not earning your paycheck…

  • Bolvon72

    As for Lynch’s last words on the subject, the Satanic Temple’s actions honor every vet that has been marginalized by his type, those that say there are no atheists in foxholes, that there are no Satanic vets, that their choice of beliefs are beneath his. As for being childish, who just showed that they never grew up past the point of not letting other kids play in the sandbox with them?

    • jakazz30

      Or is this group simply trying to not want a Christian group in the sandbox?
      As Mythblaster said:
      “the Satanists really don’t believe Satan exists. He’s a character in the Christian play-book, and the “Satanists” are merely using Christianity’s beliefs of The Evil One to combat Christianity’s claim of persecution.”
      So this was never about honoring Vets, it was a simple act against Christianity.
      Sad really that a group would use this as a time to protest.

      • Bolvon72

        Attempting to be held as equal is an act against a group? No one protested the christian memorial, we just attempted to use the space provided. Sad really that there was such an act against Satanism.

  • Steven H.

    First off the kneeling soldier cross should have never been allowed to stay from the second it was put on public land.
    The Veterans Memorial honored ALL Veterans from the beginning.
    It was one selfish man who decided that “he” wanted to put a Christian Cross Kneeling Soldier on the memorial and it was he who dishonored veterans. Now when others through the “free speech zone” ordinance were exercising their same privileges those who felt is was only for Christians went major “SnowFlake” on us and removed their display because they were offended by the Satan’s group display.
    Well now they know how we feel when they force their religious icons upon other Veterans at “our” public memorials.
    Glad to see the Belle Plaine City Council come to their senses and rescind the ordinance.
    This is a Victory for ALL Veterans and like the City of King’s Veterans Memorial, King, NC, Honor and Integrity has been restored!