A Dispute Over A Cross In Michigan Comes To A Positive Resolution

There’s good news out of Michigan: The Michigan Supreme Court has refused to hear a case concerning the display of a cross in the town of Grand Haven. The state high court’s decision to take a pass on the matter effectively ends the controversy in a manner favorable to separation of church and state.

Back in 2012, attorneys with Americans United wrote to city officials about a large cross (it’s nearly 50 feet tall) atop a hill. The cross was mounted on a hydraulic lift, and city officials would display the Christian symbol at certain times of the year. The cross was on public property, and our attorneys pointed out that this was an obvious violation of separation of church and state.

City officials dragged their feet in the hope of continuing displays of the cross. At one point, they even suggested that other groups could use the hill holding the cross to display messages. That collapsed after Americans United said local groups wanted to use the cross’s hydraulic lift to put up messages supporting legal abortion and gay rights.

Grand Haven's cross is now an anchor. (Photo by Marie Havenga)

In 2015, the Grand Haven City Council voted to resolve the matter by permanently converting the cross into an anchor. The move made sense because the town, which is situated on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan, has historic ties to the U.S. Coast Guard. Unfortunately, some folks in the community weren’t happy and decided to take the matter to court. They argued that the city had somehow infringed on their free-speech rights by removing the cross.

State courts were not swayed by this convoluted argument. In August 2015, a trial court ruled in favor of the city, finding that the cross display was government speech and therefore the city had the right to end it. The Michigan Court of Appeals later upheld that ruling. (AU filed a legal brief before the appeals court, asserting that continued display of the cross would violate the separation of church and state.)

As is often the case in disputes like this, emotions sometimes ran high. At one point, members of a Christian motorcycle club issued a veiled threat to Americans United.

“We just don’t think it’s right to sit back and let a minority bully their way in and make demands on our community – no way,” Rick Phillips, the leader of the group, said. “You’re not going to come here and tell us what to do because you have a problem with [the cross]. If you’re walking down the boardwalk and the cross offends you, walk in the other direction. [The rally] is basically to say, ‘mess with the cross, you mess with us.’”

Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed in Grand Haven. The situation has been resolved in a way that makes sense and respects everyone’s rights. We’re always pleased when that happens.