No cross, no Satan: A MN town cancels its 'free speech' zone

Belle Plaine is worn down by months of debates about free speech and church/state.

After months of debate about war heroes, religion, Satan, and free speech, the battle-weary town of Belle Plaine, Minnesota, made a decision this week: let's just skip that free speech zone idea for our park.

The city council in the town of fewer than 8,000 people voted on Monday night to reverse their earlier decision allowing private displays in a section of the city-owned Veterans Memorial Park.

That means a monument to fallen soldiers that included a church cross will not return to the park. And a group's plan to put up a monument to Satan will not be carried out.

After their vote, the council said in a statement the recent debates have divided Belle Plaine and portrayed the city in a bad light. They say local veterans groups support the town's decision.

What's the debate about?

A veteran in Belle Plaine designed the monument pictured above – with the silhouette of a soldier with a rifle kneeling in front of a cross.

When it went up in the city park, though, there were complaints from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which argued that using a symbol of Christianity in a city park violated the separation of church and state. Their threatened lawsuit prompted Belle Plaine to take down the monument, which had been nicknamed "Joe."

Then came demonstrations from townspeople who wanted Joe returned. That led to the idea of creating an area within the park for private displays not endorsed by the city – a "free speech" zone. Joe returned.

But when the Satanic Temple of Salem, Massachusetts, said it planned to put up a monument to Satan in Belle Plaine's park, the debate reached a new level. Last weekend there were both pro-Catholic and pro-Satan demonstrations at the park. Joe had disappeared, though.

Monday night's vote means Joe won't be returning. The city says owners of other private displays have 10 days to remove them now that the free speech zone has been nixed.

What Belle Plaine says now

The city council says the original idea of using a public space to recognize people for their military service had been overshadowed by freedom of speech concerns raised by both religious and non-religious communities.

They say that debate has a place in public dialogue but in Belle Plaine it detracted from the city's intent. Read the full statement here.

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