For much of 2017, 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. It was a kneeling soldier in front of a Christian cross. Seeing that as an invitation, the Satanists applied to erect their own monument for veterans right next to the other one.
They got the approval and hired someone to build the monument. That’s important. I’ll say it again: They got the approval and hired someone to build the monument.
But then, that July, just before the installation was set to take place and after a public outcry over the expected new addition, 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.
That was all well and good in regards to the First Amendment. But that didn’t mean all the problems were resolved because The Satanic Temple now had this giant black, expensive steel monument sitting in a facility. They commissioned it with the intention of putting it up in the park, but that was no longer going to happen because city officials shut down the public forum.
So what were they supposed to do with it?
That December, the Satanists demanded that the city pay them the $35,000 they spent on the display. Their argument was essentially that they played by the rules and did everything local officials wanted… only to have the city break the “contract” at the last second (after the Satanists called their bluff), wasting the Satanists’ time and money.
The city council didn’t buy that logic. In a letter to the Satanists’ lawyer, the city attorney basically said there was no contract at all. Furthermore, the Satanists accepted a refund of their application fee (suggesting they knew the deal was dead), and they couldn’t prove the city changed the rules just to spite them.
The Temple’s spokesperson Lucien Greaves said they never cashed the $100 refund and a lawsuit could be in the works. That wasn’t a mere threat. They eventually sued.
The lawsuit itself listed 10 different counts and called for $50,000 in compensatory damages on top of any punitive damages (“with interest”). All of that was in addition to legal fees and a request that the Court allow the Satanists to erect their display in the park.
Well, now there’s a major update in the case.
This week, U.S. District Judge Wilhelmina Wright ruled that the lawsuit could continue… but she tossed out nine of those ten counts. Basically, the Satanists said city officials violated their free speech and free exercise rights, and the judge was having none of it. All the complaints about constitutional violations are a no-go.
But the one count that the judge is allowing to proceed — the one count that this case now rests on — is the one about “promissory estoppel.” That’s the count that basically says You made a promise to us, even if it wasn’t in writing, and we expected you to uphold it.
Said the judge:
Based on these pleadings, [The Satanic Temple] sufficiently alleges that Belle Plaine should have reasonably expected that TST would expend time and resources to construct a display after receiving approval and that TST in fact expended such time and resources.
It’s not exactly clear what happens now. There’s no hearing scheduled just yet, and The Satanic Temple could re-raise some of those constitutional issues if they feel they were improperly dismissed. But what we know is that this case isn’t over yet. Belle Plaine isn’t off the hook.
What’s astonishing is how all of this could’ve been avoided if those city officials weren’t so hell-bent on putting a Christian monument on city property.
(Large portions of this article were published earlier. Thanks to Brian for the link)