Society

City Ends Free Speech Zone Over Praying Soldier Dispute (Photos)

| by Jordan Smith
Veterans memorialVeterans memorial

A the city council in Belle Plaine, Minnesota, voted July 17 to close down a free speech zone set up in a memorial park for veterans after it caused controversy.

Belle Plaine council members agreed to call for the removal of all privately owned monuments set up in the area to honor soldiers, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

The dispute began after a silhouette of a praying soldier, known as "Joe," was placed in the free speech zone in Veterans Memorial Park. The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a nonprofit group that advocates for the separation of church and state, threatened to sue the city over what it argued was the presence of a religious symbol on government-owned property.

Belle Plaine took the decision in January to remove "Joe," triggering protests from religious groups. Responding to the demonstrations, city council members agreed to establish the free speech zone, reinstating "Joe" and allowing other monuments to be put up.

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Other groups intervened, including the Satanic Temple of Salem, which called for another monument to be erected to pay tribute to atheist soldiers. Although the monument was never installed, Christian groups held protests against it.

The Satanic Temple does not worship Satan, one of its members said. The Temple's website states it seeks to "encourage benevolence and empathy among all people, reject tyrannical authority [and] advocate practical common sense and justice."

"The park can now go back to honoring the veterans without conflict in our community between people of different beliefs," said Council Member Ben Stier, the Star Tribune reported.

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In a statement, the city council explained its decision.

"The original intent of providing the public space was to recognize those who have bravely contributed to defending our nation through their military service," the press release stated. "In recent weeks and months, though, that intent has been overshadowed by freedom of speech concerns expressed by both religious and nonreligious communities."

It added that the controversy had "portrayed the city in a negative light."

Doug Wardlow, an attorney for the group Defend Veterans Park, wanted "Joe" to stay.

"I understand the council's decision in light of what's been going on in the community, specifically the out-of-state atheists' groups attempts to use the free speech zone for political purposes in a very ugly way," he said.

The planned monument was to have been a black cube with pentagrams on it, topped off by an upturned soldier's helmet.

"We aren't a country founded on religion, we're a country founded on freedom," Koren Walsh, a member of Left Hand Path, a Minnesota-based group in favor of the Satanic Temple's monument, told the Star Tribune. "People keep forgetting that."

Sources: Star Tribune (2) / Photo credit: Pixabay, Freedom From Religion Foundation (2), Chris P. Andres via Star Tribune

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