The silhouetted soldier, rifle in hand, kneels before a cross. Resident Joseph Gregory, an 87-year-old Army veteran, made the statue. The Belle Plaine Vet's Club was responsible for bringing the black metal monument to Veterans Memorial Park in 2016.
The figure would come to be known as "Joe." Its creator died before his monument on the Minnesota prairie became a controversy known throughout America.
Good intentions brought Joe to Memorial Park. But Belle Plaine is discovering that those good intentions may cost $35,000 plus legal fees and court costs.
Attorney Martin Flax represents the Satanic Temple of Salem, Massachusetts. The "faith-based organization," as cofounder Malcolm Jarry described it to the New York Times, is more freedom fighter for individual rights and separation of church and state than religious congregation.
The Temple is a mix of Marilyn Manson shock schtick and Walmart. Mugs, hoodies, and candles feature its name. Stuff with devils and pentagrams are for sale online as well.
An unconfirmed number of Temple chapters dot the American map. Events like one in November in Arizona celebrate free thinking, human fallibility, and egalitarianism.
Scary name, yes. Scary gatherings, no.
The Temple landed on the prairie as a surprise guest months back. Its mission: crash Joe's party. Not long after Joe appeared at the park, the Freedom From Religion Foundation complained. The monument's cross was a violation of the separation of church and state, according to the group. By only honoring the sacrifice "of Christian soldiers," said the Foundation, the monument "was disdainful of the sacrifices made by non-Christian and nonreligious soldiers."
That was all the Satanic Temple needed to hear.
Earlier this year, the city was reminded by the group that the park was built on public soil. It was doubly reminded that the soldier kneeling at what looked like Jesus' cross was a constitutional no-no.
The city council hustled to somehow make things right. It did, kind of.
Members approved the creation of a free speech zone, a special area designed to keep Joe and allow for others to erect monuments, the anti-Christ included.
For its monument, the Temple came up with a stogy black box with what appeared to be a top handle, and shapes outlined in yellow on the sides, a pentagram one of them.
By the time summer arrived, the city was all riled up. Residents weren't going to stand for the First Amendment DMZ compromise.
Pro-Joe rallies drew crowds. Some brought signs. One man's read: "I reject Satan." Counter protests proved modest.
The New York Times and the Washington Post assigned reporters to cover the controversy.
Not long after the July 4 holiday, Belle Plaine reversed course. The city council voted to kill the free speech zone. The move was justified because of fears that the area might "encourage vandalism," thus hurting "the safety, serenity, and decorum of the park."
A letter arrived at city hall in October. The Satanic Temple was asking for $35,000 in damages plus legal fees, it said. Breach of contract, it alleged. The group had followed the steps to have a monument, only to find out it was for naught.
"Until the public forum was rescinded, the city council was very professional, respectful, and communicative," Temple cofounder Malcolm Jarry told the Belle Plaine Herald. "The issue of our expenses was raised twice in our correspondences with the city council, but there was no response. For that reason, we had no choice but to seek legal recourse."
Belle Plaine Administrator Dawn Meyer declined to discuss the latest development. But you can hear it in her voice: Belle Plaine has grown tired of the Satanic Temple.
The Satanic Temple didn't respond to repeated interview requests. Messages left for Flax were not returned.
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