BELLE PLAINE, Minnesota — Two days after hundreds of people — many of them Catholic — from around the country descended on Belle Plaine to protest the installation of a Satanic memorial in the city’s veterans park, the City Council voted unanimously July 17 to nix all religious symbols there.

The council rescinded a designation that made a portion of the park available for monument commissions from any religious group.

The decision blocked the arrival of the monument commissioned by the Satanic Temple, but it also sealed the departure of the “Joe” monument, a small iron-cast silhouette of a soldier kneeling on one knee in front of a cross grave marker. Joseph Gregory, a local veteran who died in October 2016, made the memorial.

“It’s an outcome I can live with,” said Father Brian Lynch, pastor of Our Lady of the Prairie in Belle Plaine, “but it’s far from a perfect outcome” because the “Joe” statute also had to go. The statue and proposed Satanic memorial became the center of a controversy that made national headlines.

It began in August 2016, when the Belle Plaine Vets Club placed the “Joe” statue in the park. A Belle Plaine resident and Freedom From Religion Foundation member complained about “Joe” looking too religious for public property. The City Council had the monument’s cross removed at the request of the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation.

Vets Club members filled a Feb. 6 council meeting to request the cross’s return. A 3-2 council vote created a limited public forum area in the park, which allowed “Joe” to have the cross back. The designation provided a place where any religion could erect a memorial in the park.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation then invited the Massachusetts-based Satanic Temple to commission a memorial for the Belle Plaine park. The city approved the application. The memorial commissioned by the Satanic Temple — which claims no belief in Satan as a being — was recently completed, but it had yet to be sent to Belle Plaine. Its design included occult symbolism.

Concerns over the Satanic memorial drew hundreds of people to a rosary rally and an adjacent counter rally at Veterans Memorial Park July 15.

America Needs Fatima, an independent Pennsylvania-based Catholic organization, held the rosary rally, while Minnesota’s Left Hand Path community, which includes Satanists, held a counter rally in support of The Satanic Temple’s monument.

America Needs Fatima rally organizer William Siebenmorgen, a Pennsylvania resident, said the rally drew 250 people from around the country — including Arkansas, Illinois, Kansas and Kentucky — for the rosary, hymns and prayers.

“The issue is really not about a free speech zone, it’s about trying to prevent Satanism from gaining acceptance,” said Robert Ritchie, America Needs Fatima executive director. Ritchie did not attend the event.

The two rallies coincided with Belle Plaine’s town festival parade on nearby Main Street, a decision Lynch questioned.

“They were basically asking (local) people to choose between going to the parade or going to (the rally),” Lynch told The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. “I think many of us (in Belle Plaine) tire from having people from the outside telling us how to do things.”

Outside input also wore on city officials, and top officials put the resolution to remove the park’s limited public forum on the council’s July 17 agenda four days before the meeting.

According to Ritchie, America Needs Fatima sent a petition with about 23,000 signatures to the city opposing the Satanic memorial. Interim city administrator Dawn Meyer told the Belle Plaine Herald that “city hall received about 300 calls” July 12 alone about the Satanic memorial.

She also told the Herald that the “controversy has limited the city staff’s ability to complete tasks.”

A City Council news release on the July 17 decision stated that limited public space had been designated to honor veterans, but it had been “overshadowed by freedom of speech concerns expressed by both religious and non-religious communities.”

The statement added that it “promoted divisiveness among our own residents” and “portrayed our city in a negative light.” It also mentioned the council had the support of veterans organizations in removing the space.

Gregory’s family had the “Joe” memorial removed before the July 15 rally and counter-rally. Family members were unavailable for comment.

Lynch believes the city’s decision doesn’t end a fundamental battle that took place — taking Christian symbolism out of the public square. He said Satanic Temple and Freedom From Religion Foundation “got what they wanted” with the removal of “Joe.”

“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.”

He added: “There’s a desire to reframe the country as a country without religion.”

– – –

Davis is on the staff of The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.