Written by Don Byrd

A controversy in Belle Plaine, Minnesota, over a religious monument placed in a city park has apparently ended after the city council chose to remove the free speech zone it placed in the park rather than face a proposed satanic monument and the potential for church-state litigation.

The original monument, depicting a soldier kneeling before a cross, was placed in the park by a local veteran’s organization. A free speech zone was created there, which seemingly insulated the city against church-state claims by clarifying that the monument was privately owned and thus did not represent government speech. But, as they learned, a free speech zone is just that. The move inspired other proposed monuments on the space, including one from the Satanic Temple.

Minnesota Public Radio’s Bob Collins explains what happened next:

Belle Plaine, Minn., tried just about everything it could short of understanding every U.S. Supreme Court ruling on religious displays in the country’s history. But today it threw in the towel and banned privately-owned displays in a city park.

The legal issues and court decisions surrounding religious monuments on government property are indeed complicated. Church-state concerns overlap with free speech issues, which overlap with the right of government to control its own messaging. One approach, however, seems air-tight: don’t have them. Government can leave religious displays to the realm of private expression, on privately owned land. Belle Plaine’s experience trying to protect a Christian display from legal challenge is telling. As Collins rightly concluded, “[t]here’s nothing to prevent Belle Plaine from honoring the military without including a religious display.”