Statue featuring cross abruptly removed from Belle Plaine park

Published 7:36 am Monday, July 17, 2017

By Anthony Lonetree

Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

A war memorial depicting a soldier kneeling by a cross was removed Friday from a Belle Plaine park in the latest — and perhaps final — chapter of an emotional battle over religious symbolism in public spaces.

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The 2-foot steel statue, entitled “Joe,” had prompted an anti-religion group to announced that it would install a satanic monument in Veterans Memorial Park. Such a monument would be the first of its kind erected on public property in the United States.

But the abrupt removal of “Joe” and an agenda item for the Belle Plaine City Council’s upcoming Monday meeting indicated Saturday that the controversy soon may be over. The agenda includes a resolution to rescind the “public forum” area created in the park to contain religious statues, where “Joe” had been installed and where the satanic monument, a black cube inscribed with pentagrams and topped with an upturned soldier’s helmet, was to be placed.

A post on the Facebook page of a group called “Defend Veterans Park” said Saturday morning that “Joe” had been removed by the family of its creator, Joe Gregory, and that “Joe may not return.”

Even so, more than 150 people attended a rally at noon Saturday organized by America Needs Fatima, a Catholic nonprofit. They listened to speakers and prayed, many on their knees, and some carried a large statue of Mary, the mother of Jesus. One sign read, “Satan belongs in hell, not Veterans Memorial Park.” Another contained the Latin phrase “Ipsa conteret caput tuum,” a biblical reference to the crushing of the head of the serpent that symbolizes Satan by Mary’s heel.

The protesters were unaware that the “Joe” statue had been removed and that installation of the Satanic monument may have been headed off until informed by a Star Tribune reporter. Some credited Catholic protests for those developments.

A few members of Minnesota’s Left Hand Path Community were also present, picnicking on a blanket near the Catholic rally. One said they were not Satanists, but rather free-speech proponents.

The controversy has dogged public officials in the town of 6,700, which is about 45 miles southwest of Minneapolis. It began in January, when the city removed “Joe” after objections that its presence in a city park violated the constitutionally required 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 a 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.

Founders of the Satanic Temple say they don’t actually worship Satan, but want equal treatment for atheists and other nonbelievers. The temple aims to “encourage benevolence and empathy among all people, reject tyrannical authority [and] advocate practical common sense and justice,” according to its website.

If the satanic monument went up, it would be the first time a satanic-oriented statue has gone up on public property. Koren Walsh, a Left Hand Path member, said that every other time the Satanic Temple has challenged a religious statue, it has been removed, ending the controversy.

America Needs Fatima promotes what it calls traditional family values and honoring the Virgin Mary, said Ritchie, its director. The group has 300,000 members and organizes 28,000 rosary rallies each year. Fifty to 100 people are expected at this one, Ritchie said. This cause is especially important to the group because it involves veterans, he said.