Religious symbols spur spirited battle in west Michigan

Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News

Grand Haven — If the battle over religious symbols on public property was over in western Michigan, someone forgot to tell symbol supporters.

Conservative Christians are mounting a counteroffensive against the removal of a religious sign from an Ottawa County park, and a decision by Grand Haven to stop erecting a 48-foot cross during special occasions.

Grand Haven’s decision to stop erecting a cross during special occasions spurred a lawsuit.

The campaign includes forums, petitions, the forming of a foundation to finance legal challenges, the display of crosses in yards and the attempted recall of a Grand Haven councilman who voted against the cross.

They scored their first victory last month, when the Ottawa County Board of Commissioners approved the return to Hager Park near Jenison of a sign bearing Psalm 19:1.

Also, a group of Grand Haven residents filed a lawsuit this month to allow the cross to continue being raised on a hill overlooking downtown.

"It's a hot topic around here," said Rick Phillips, a Spring Lake Realtor who organized a rally to support the cross last year. "It's a long way from being closed."

Several civil rights organizations are considering legal challenges to the sign's return. They said they will decide once the marker is reinstalled.

The sign, which reads "The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handiwork," will be put back up in several weeks, said county officials.

The Ottawa County Board of Commissioners listens to public comments during a work session at the Ottawa County Government Building in West Olive Monday, January 13. Attorney Douglas W. Van Essen references Heaven as he addressed the board and residents with his opinion regarding the issue. Residents are fighting the removal of a religious sign that had been in a Georgetown Township park for 60 years.

Even Doug Van Essen, the Ottawa County attorney, said judges have consistently upheld the separation of church and state in decades of rulings. The First Amendment prohibits government from promoting religion.

In voting to return the Hager Park sign, the Ottawa County commissioners ignored Van Essen's legal advice and heeded a public outcry in support of the sign.

"The First Amendment says you can't put one religion over another," said Van Essen.

Whichever way the legal battles go, they promise to be expensive.

One reason the Grand Haven council decided to remove the cross was to avoid a costly legal battle members didn't think they could win.

With the lawsuit filed this month, the council will have no choice but to fight.

The challenges to the sign and cross began with Mitch Kahle, an atheist who moved to western Michigan last year.

Kahle, who had lived in Hawaii, had enjoyed a long string of successes on church-state issues in that state.

That success continued in Michigan as the Ottawa County Parks and Recreation Commission removed the Hager Park sign in December, right after receiving a letter from Kahle.

The sign had been erected in 1947 at the behest of a local businessman who donated land for the park.

Its removal quickly drew the wrath of the citizenry.

"I'm tired of a small little group deciding what we're going to have or not going to have in our community," said Judy Hirdes of nearby Zeeland Township.

Norton Shores resident Mitch Kahle is a civil rights activist with one of his primary focuses being the separation of church and state.

Sign reversal

During a county commission meeting in January, 15 residents spoke about the sign, virtually every one of them wanting it back. Dozens of people wrote letters to the commission. A petition asking for the sign's reinstatement garnered 1,291 signatures.

On March 24, the commissioners, with little explanation of their reasoning, approved the return of the sign in an 8-3 vote.

Other commission actions seem to suggest they're treating the sign as more of a historic object than a religious one.

In returning the sign, the commission voted to accompany it with a second sign that will describe how the Psalm sign was an important part of the park's origins. Businessman Titus Hager had sought the sign with the Psalm verse as a condition of his donating the land.

A third sign will explain that the Psalm doesn't represent the views of the county government.

County Commissioner Dennis Van Dam, a strong advocate of the sign's return, said it should be reinstated because of its history.

"This isn't a government endorsement of religion," he said last week. "It's just a recognition of the historical importance of the sign."

But the Michigan chapter of the Center for Inquiry, a secular humanist group, said the history angle doesn't remove the religious overtones of the sign.

If the sign quoted the Quran, the same people yelling for its return would be screaming for its removal, said Jennifer Beahan, assistant director of the group.

"It's clearly promoting Christianity above all other religions," she said.

Kahle also objected to Grand Haven's cross, but unlike the park sign, the city didn't decide to remove it until after months of meetings and discussions.

In January, the City Council, by a 3-2 vote, decided to turn the cross into an anchor.

The cross, installed in 1962, was raised mainly for Sunday evening church services during the summer.

Despite losing the protracted battle, supporters of the cross weren't ready to stop fighting.

A Facebook page that supports the cross' return attracted 13,100 supporters from around the country.

The page's creator, Jeff Grunow, then formed the Dewey Hill Foundation, which will financially support communities that resist efforts to remove religious symbols from public property.

Dewey Hill is the name of the spot where the Grand Haven cross is located.

"We're still in this battle," Grunow said. "We lost the last one but the war is still waging."

File phorto of Psalm sign in Hager Park in Ottawa County’s Georgetown Township.

Council's hands tied?

On April 1, attorney Helen Brinkman filed a lawsuit in Ottawa County Circuit Court to overturn the City Council decision.

In the suit, her clients are identified as "Grand Haven residents." She said they wanted to be anonymous to avoid being harassed by opponents of the cross.

She said the council discriminated against religion by removing the cross from public property but allowing the anchor and a water fountain to remain on Dewey Hill.

"The Constitution protects religious speech," she said.

Grand Haven resident Brandon Hall had hoped to recall one of the three council members who voted to remove the cross.

Two council members couldn't be recalled because their terms would end within a year, so Hall set his sights on removing Councilman Bob Monetza. Hall needed 953 signatures to hold a recall election, but wasn't able to get them, he said.

In an interview last week, Monetza said the council's hands were tied when deciding how to resolve the cross controversy.

He said he couldn't see the city mounting an expensive legal fight that it was unlikely to win.

"Of the choices we had, this was the most realistic," said Monetza.

Now, Hall is turning his attention to the City Council election in August. Councilmen Mike Fritz and John Hierholzer, who also voted to remove the cross, are up for re-election.

Hall has formed a political action committee that will support candidates who want the cross returned. He hopes to turn the nonpartisan election into a referendum on the cross.

The top vote-getters in August will run in the general election in November. If Hall can replace Fritz or Hierholzer with someone who will vote to return the cross, he hopes to reverse the earlier council decision.

"The cross is coming back," said Hall. "The only question is how and when it will happen."

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Twitter: @francisXdonnell