See more of the story

After weeks of public pressure, the Belle Plaine City Council reversed itself and voted Monday to allow the erection of a cross it had ordered removed from Veterans Memorial Park after complaints that it violated the separation of church and state.

For nearly a month, a rotating guard of citizens occupied the park each day, toting American flags and their own handmade crosses. Many argued that the symbol, in the context of a fallen soldier tribute, was secular rather than religious.

More than 100 residents, who marched across the street from the local VFW to council chambers, squeezed their way into Monday’s meeting to persuade officials to bring the cross back.

“The residents feel a sense of duty,” said Andy Parrish. “Our veterans defended us and it’s our duty to defend them.”

Nearly an hour of debate passed before the council narrowly approved the proposal 3-2 to designate a “limited public forum” at the park, which would accommodate up to five displays — religious or not — as long as they honor military veterans.

It was a victory for the townspeople, many of whom argued that their religious freedom had been infringed upon when the cross was removed in early January. It will soon be returned to the memorial for fallen veterans.

The saga began in August when Belle Plaine resident JoAnne Gill filed a police report questioning whether it was legal to include a cross attached to the silhouette of a kneeling soldier at a comrade’s headstone. The Freedom From Religion Foundation also objected, arguing that a cross in a public park violates the constitutional separation of church and state.

Belle Plaine residents learned of the city’s decision to remove the cross in early January. It outraged members of the Veterans Club and galvanized the small town 45 miles southwest of Minneapolis. Hundreds of crosses were erected on front lawns and displayed in private businesses to pressure city leaders.

The Madison, Wis.-based Freedom From Religion Foundation requested that the city reject the public forum proposal on the grounds that it aims to restore a Christian symbol to the park.

“The park shouldn’t be opened up for groups to put up any displays they want; it disrupts the purpose,” said Rebecca Markert, an attorney with the foundation. “It’s sort of inviting a circus to a solemn place.”

Markert said the group will consider further legal action and submit its own “Atheists in Foxholes” monument.

At Monday’s meeting, officials weighed the risk of defending the city in a lawsuit. Some council members feared that if the foundation sued, and the League of Minnesota Cities failed to back Belle Plaine, then any legal costs would go to the city.

“You elect us to protect your interests and your dollars,” said Councilman Paul Chard, who voted against the restoration of the cross. He worried aloud about having to raise taxes as a result of a court battle. “When I hear that something is gonna cost me a lot of money, that scares me.”

Doug Wardlow, an attorney with Alliance Defending Freedom, a large Christian legal nonprofit, represented the pro-cross contingent for free. He told leaders he was confident the policy was “constitutional and sound.”

Parrish, a vocal proponent of the cross, convinced some of the council members that, should a lawsuit arise, groups like Alliance Defending Freedom would support them — and send a message that “Belle Plaine won’t be ­bullied.”

Liz Sawyer • 612-673-4648