Satanic Tem­ple’s small-town trib­ute to vets

Provoca­tive group re­ceives ap­proval to place its mon­u­ment at a Min­nesota me­mo­rial park

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - BY SANDHYA SOMASHEKHAR

Vet­er­ans Me­mo­rial Park in tiny Belle Plaine, Minn., is packed with re­mem­brances for the town’s men and women in uni­form. Soon, it will get one more: a solemn black cube hold­ing an up­turned hel­met, its sides adorned with in­verted pen­ta­grams.

The Satanic Tem­ple an­nounced Fri­day that it had re­ceived ap­proval to in­stall the mon­u­ment, which is in pro­duc­tion. Within a cou­ple of months, it is ex­pected to take its place along­side a flag-lined walk­way, a mar­ble plaque and a re­tired UH-1H Iro­quois “Huey” he­li­copter po­si­tioned as if it is hov­er­ing above the ground.

The ap­proval of the mon­u­ment brings a new twist to a long-run­ning bat­tle that be­gan last sum­mer, when some­one put up a metal sil­hou­ette of an in­fantry­man kneel­ing be­fore a cross. A res­i­dent ob­jected, call­ing it a re­li­gious sym­bol that vi­o­lates the prin­ci­ple of the sep­a­ra­tion of church and state.

After months of ac­ri­mony, the city de­cided to make part of the park a “pub­lic fo­rum,” open to vir­tu­ally any group that wants to honor the town’s vet­er­ans. The Satanic Tem­ple took them up on it.

It is not the first such ef­fort from the Satanic Tem­ple, a provoca­tive or­ga­ni­za­tion that of­ten pushes the bound­aries on free speech and re­li­gious lib­er­ties to prove a point about reli­gion in pub­lic spa­ces; last year, it started its “After School Satan” clubs as a way of chal­leng­ing Chris­tian evan­gel­i­cal groups that spon­sor after-school re­li­gious pro­gram­ming. But this is the first time the group has suc­ceeded in hav­ing a mon­u­ment placed on pub­lic land, said Lu­cien Greaves, spokesman for the or­ga­ni­za­tion, which is based in Salem, Mass.

Belle Plaine of­fi­cials “didn’t of­fer any re­sis­tance, to their credit,” said Greaves, who also goes by the name Doug Mes­ner. “We gen­uinely want some­thing that will honor the vet­er­ans. It’s not about be­ing shock­ing or up­set­ting the lo­cals, though it’s an in­evitable byprod­uct.”

City of­fi­cials con­sid­ered that the new pol­icy could in­vite provo­ca­teurs but ap­proved it any­way.

“It was dis­cussed dur­ing our city coun­cil meet­ing when we au­thored the pol­icy that groups that were un­pop­u­lar or oth­er­wise would put mon­u­ments in the park,” said Michael Votca, the city ad­min­is­tra­tor.

The flare-up in this town about 45 miles south­west of Minneapolis comes as the coun­try is mired in a heated bat­tle over re­li­gious free­dom and the rights of peo­ple of faith, par­tic­u­larly con­ser­va­tive Chris­tians, to opt out of ac­tiv­i­ties that sup­port same-sex mar­riage, abor­tion or birth con­trol.

On Thurs­day, President Trump signed an ex­ec­u­tive or­der aimed at ex­pand­ing re­li­gious pro­tec­tions that, among other things, soften en­force­ment of the John­son Amend­ment, which bars tax­ex­empt houses of wor­ship from en­gag­ing in po­lit­i­cal speech.

But as the Satanic Tem­ple has tried to demon­strate, ex­pand­ing re­li­gious lib­er­ties can have un­in­tended con­se­quences. Be­cause the Con­sti­tu­tion bars the es­tab­lish­ment of a na­tional reli­gion, it re­quires that the same pro­tec­tions be ex­tended to peo­ple of all faiths, in­clud­ing ones with dis­turb­ing con­no­ta­tions such as sa­tanism and to those who pro­fess no faith.

Greaves said that his or­ga­ni­za­tion is con­sid­er­ing ap­ply­ing for the same tax-ex­empt sta­tus that churches and syn­a­gogues en­joy. It pre­vi­ously avoided do­ing so to freely en­gage in pol­i­tics. But with Trump’s ex­ec­u­tive or­der, he said, “there’s ab­so­lutely no ad­van­tage to not be tax-ex­empt. A lot more or­ga­ni­za­tions should ap­ply and put it to the test.”

He said that his or­ga­ni­za­tion does not wor­ship the devil. Rather, he said, it is a “non­the­is­tic re­li­gious or­ga­ni­za­tion” de­voted to art, free speech and in­di­vid­u­al­ity, whose val­ues “are no less deeply held” than those pro­fess­ing a be­lief in God.

In its ap­pli­ca­tion to the city, the or­ga­ni­za­tion de­scribed the mon­u­ment as a “black steel cube with em­bossed in­verted pen­ta­grams with in­laid gold on four sides. An in­verted hel­met rests on the top of the cube. A plaque on one side of the cube reads: ‘In honor of Belle Plaine vet­er­ans who fought to de­fend the United States and its Con­sti­tu­tion.’ ”

Belle Plaine has been grap­pling with its park pol­icy since last sum­mer, when a two-foot statue of a kneel­ing sol­dier ap­peared. Katie Novotny, a Belle Plaine res­i­dent and vet­er­ans ad­vo­cate, said it was cre­ated by a lo­cal vet who died shortly after it was put up. It is af­fec­tion­ately dubbed “Joe.”

Novotny con­tends that it is not a re­li­gious dis­play. Joe, she said, is sim­ply kneel­ing at a head­stone fash­ioned into the shape of a cross, which is a com­mon way for grave­stones to be de­picted.

“I don’t think 90 per­cent of peo­ple see it as a re­li­gious sym­bol when it’s in that con­text,” she said.

But the city, fear­ing a law­suit, or­dered the cross re­moved in Jan­uary. Some­one from the lo­cal Vet­er­ans of For­eign Wars group was tasked with saw­ing it off the statue, she said. The per­son given that job “said it was the hard­est thing he ever had to do,” she said.

The de­ci­sion im­me­di­ately prompted protests. Peo­ple fash­ioned their own crosses and de­fi­antly in­stalled them next to the statue. Around the town, Novotny said, res­i­dents who sup­ported the orig­i­nal dis­play put repli­cas in their win­dows — in­clud­ing the cross.

The city even­tu­ally hit upon a com­pro­mise. It estab­lished a “lim­ited pub­lic fo­rum” within the park in which groups could erect, with city per­mis­sion, a mon­u­ment hon­or­ing the town’s vet­er­ans. The per­mits last for a year, and no more than 10 mon­u­ments may be dis­played at a time.

The cross was welded back onto the statue. Joe and his cross re­turned to the park last month.

Novotny said she does not ob­ject to the Satanic Tem­ple’s plans. “If they want to come here from Mas­sachusetts and put some­thing up to honor our vet­er­ans in Belle Plaine, go for it,” she said. “They de­serve to be hon­ored.”

Some other places have opted to ban all re­li­gious dis­plays when faced with this type of con­flict. In 2015, the Ok­la­homa Supreme Court ruled that a mon­u­ment of the Ten Com­mand­ments had to be re­moved from its grounds for vi­o­lat­ing a state pro­hi­bi­tion against use of pub­lic prop­erty to pro­mote one reli­gion.

An­other group plan­ning to ap­ply for a spot at the Belle Plaine park is the Free­dom From Reli­gion Foun­da­tion, which ob­jected to the cross dis­play. It is plan­ning to com­mis­sion a stone trib­ute to “athe­ists in fox­holes” — a take on an old say­ing sug­gest­ing that every­one finds God when faced with death.

Annie Lau­rie Gay­lor, co-president of the Free­dom From Reli­gion Foun­da­tion, pre­dicted that city of­fi­cials will come to re­gret open­ing the park to all dis­plays.

“They’re go­ing to run out of space,” she said. “It will just be lit­tered . . . . One day, they will look at ev­ery­thing and de­cide, was it really worth it?”

COUR­TESY OF SATANIC TEM­PLE

An artist’s ren­der­ing shows the mon­u­ment that the Satanic Tem­ple plans to erect at Vet­er­ans Me­mo­rial Park in Belle Plaine, Minn. This is the first time that the Salem, Mass.-based or­ga­ni­za­tion has suc­ceeded in hav­ing a mon­u­ment placed on pub­lic land.

JOSH REYNOLDS FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

Lu­cien Greaves, Satanic Tem­ple spokesman, with a statue of the goat-headed idol Baphomet, at the group’s meet­ing house in Salem.

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