The Devil was planning an excursion to Belle Plaine, Minnesota, but the city council derailed his visit.
The town’s Veterans Memorial Park has been a focus of controversy since January 2017. Well, not the entire park, just a particular portion of it. The park had been home to a veterans’ memorial, a sculpture in silhouette made of black cast iron of a grieving soldier on one knee before a cross grave marker.
The sculpture was the work of Joseph Gregory, a Belle Plaine resident and veteran, who died in 2016, only two months after his sculpture was installed in the park. Yet in spite the memorial’s hometown roots, and its appropriateness for a park dedicated to veterans, on the grounds that the memorial features a cross, the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation threatened Belle Plaine with a lawsuit if the town did not remove the sculpture. The city government was ready to do just that, when the outcry from residents made them have second thoughts. So the town kept the sculpture but removed the cross, which still ticked off many residents, and ruined the focal point of this work of art.
In a decision worthy of Solomon, the city council voted to create a “free speech zone” in the park that technically would not be public land and where the various communities of Belle Plaine could erect monuments to the veterans that reflected their beliefs. You can see where this was going — the Jewish congregation erects a menorah at Hanukkah, the Christian churches set up a Nativity scene at Christmas, maybe someone strings Tibetan Buddhist prayer flags from a tree, it would have been nice if the Muslim community installed a fountain, perhaps inscribed with a verse or two from the Koran. Have the spot landscaped, put in some benches, and Belle Plaine has a lovely meditation garden. Everybody’s happy. Right?
Not so fast. The Freedom From Religion Foundation got wind of the free speech zone and got in touch with the Satanic Temple of Salem, Massachusetts, urging them to erect a satanic monument in the Belle Plaine park. (I have this suspicion that engraved over the FFRF’s headquarters are the words, “Professional Pains in the Ass Since 1978.”) An artist’s rendering shows what the Satanists had in mind: a black stone cube, inscribed with occult symbols, and crowned by an inverted soldier’s helmet in which visitors could leave offerings.
In fairness to the members of the Satanic Temple, they do not believe in Satan as a real entity. They don’t worship any supernatural being. But they do admire what the metaphorical figure of Satan represents: independent thought, defiance of the status quo, the spirit of rebellion.
Given that the park’s free speech zone is an unrestricted free speech zone, the city council had no option but to approve the Temple’s application to erect their monument at the site. Yes, it is high-handed for outsiders to meddle in Belle Plaine’s affairs. Yes, it is meant to be provocative, perhaps even offensive. But the town was locked in by its own ordinance.
Nonetheless, there was opposition to the satanic monument, and an outspoken opponent was Father Brian Lynch, pastor of Our Lady of Prairie Catholic Church. He helped organize a rally on July 15 to protest the installation of the monument. A couple hundred demonstrators showed up, and since many of them were Catholic they prayed the rosary. Meanwhile, the Left Hand Path, a Minnesota-based organization whose members tend to be free-thinkers on a broad variety of issues — including Satanism — held their own demonstration in support of the monument. Both rallies were peaceful, textbook examples of what the Founders had in mind when they called for a right to free assembly. By the way, the silhouette sculpture was not present in the park on the day of the demonstrations — the Gregory family has removed it.
Two days later Belle Plaine’s city council voted unanimously to abolish the park’s free speech zone. A statement released by the town government explained that the zone had been intended as a place to honor veterans, but had been “overshadowed by freedom of speech concerns expressed by both religious and non-religious communities…. [It] promoted divisiveness among our own residents [and] portrayed our city in a negative light.”
Father Lynch says he can live with the new town ordinance, but he doesn’t think much of the Freedom From Religion Foundation people, or the members of the Satanic Temple. “They are childish,” 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.”
Speaking to a reporter for the Minneapolis StarTribune, Koren Walsh, a Left Hand Path member, didn’t quite trumpet Belle Plaine’s cancellation of the free speech zone as a triumph for her point of view. “I guess it’s a victory for freedom from religion and for the separation of church and state,” she said.
I guess, too.
Thomas J. Craughwell is the author of the newly released 101 Places to Pray Before You Die: A Roamin’ Catholic’s Guide.