For a large part of this year, there was a church/state separation battle in Belle Plaine, Minnesota that began when members of The Satanic Temple noticed a Christian monument at (the very public) Veterans Memorial Park. Seeing that as an invitation, the Satanists applied to erect their own monument for veterans right next to the display of a kneeling soldier in front of a Christian cross. They got the approval and hired someone to build the monument.
But then, in July, just before the installation was set to take place and after a public outcry, the Belle Plaine City Council voted to eliminate the “free speech zone” for good. Rather than have a Satanic monument go up, they promised to remove the Christian monument.
There was no longer a First Amendment issue, but that didn’t mean all the problems were resolved. That’s because The Satanic Temple now had this giant black steel monument sitting in a facility somewhere. They commissioned it with the intention of going up in the park, but that was no longer going to happen because city officials shut down the public forum in the park. So what were they supposed to do with it?
For that reason, the group is now demanding that the city pay them the $35,000 they spent on the display.
The thinking goes like this: The city created the forum, the city approved the Satanists’ application, the city basically told the Satanists to get to work on the display, and the city only changed its policy after the Satanists did everything they were asked to do. So the city effectively broke a “contract” and wasted the Satanists’ time and money.
The local government, not surprisingly, doesn’t buy that logic. In a letter to the Satanists’ lawyer, city attorney Robert J. V. Vose suggests the Satanists have only themselves to blame:
You also claim that the City, thru its permitting process, effectively contracted with the Satanic Temple to allow its display. However, you identify no authority for the proposition that a Minnesota municipality’s permitting process is contractual. Moreover, even if there were support for this theory, your client accepted a refund of its permit application fee. Accordingly, even if a contract could have been formed, our clients mutually ended that arrangement.… Additionally, in order to prevail on a promissory estoppel argument against a municipality, the plaintiff must prove “wrongful conduct” on the part of an authorized government agent including at least some degree of malfeasance… You have made no such allegation and I am not aware of any facts that would support such an allegation if made.
The Temple’s spokesperson Lucien Greaves says they never cashed the $100 refund and they’re considering a lawsuit against the city.
Though [Greaves] agrees the council members had valid concerns about vandalism and civic unrest, he said they should have considered that before establishing the free speech zone.
“I think they were maybe taking the gamble that we wouldn’t come through on producing our monument, and now I think they’re maybe gambling that we won’t file a lawsuit,” [Greaves] said. “They would be wrong on both counts.”
If the city feared backlash, they should’ve thought of that before creating the open forum. Instead they led the Satanists on, allowing them to think it was okay to work on their monument since they were already given the green light.
Greaves made a valid argument in a letter to some of his followers, shared with me via email:
… If we allow this precedent to stand, we create an environment where alternative voices outside the Christian majority are burdened with creating monuments and displays, at great cost, with no actual hope of public placement, before the lie of the “Free Speech Zone” — having long been inhabited by an exclusive religious voice — is revealed. There must be a consequence to opening a Free Speech Zone without the intention of allowing it to be free.
He has a point there. Think of what would happen if cities that allowed Nativity scenes outside government buildings said they would allow atheists’ displays as well… but the second an atheist group actually created a monument, government officials voted to shut down the open forum. Even if there wasn’t a lot of money at stake, the time investment may be substantial and the move would go a long way to demoralizing members of the community who don’t share the majority’s faith.
I don’t know if what the city did was illegal, but it was unethical and cowardly. The Satanic Temple is still deciding whether or not to file a formal lawsuit.
(Thanks to Brian for the link)