December 2014 Church & State | People & Events

The controversy over a government-sponsored cross on public land in Michigan has inspired a group of veterans to stage a motorcycle rally in an effort to “save” the Christian symbol – even though its fate has not yet been determined.

Americans United sent a letter to officials in Grand Haven, Mich., in September to protest a large cross displayed on publicly owned land that figures prominently in a worship series held outside every summer.

The cross, which is 48 feet tall and 24 feet wide, sits on Dewey Hill. It overlooks Lake Michigan just west of Grand Rapids and is attached to a hydraulic lift. The cross is not permanently displayed but is hoisted up on special occasions.

Americans United has offered options for the cross besides its removal, including making the hill an open public forum, but some local residents are nonetheless out to stop it from being removed. The Grand Haven Tribune reported in October that a “Christian motorcycle club” led by a local realtor and Vietnam veteran named Rick Phillips held a rally on Oct. 25 in defense of the cross.

Phillips told the newspaper he didn’t have much sympathy for anyone who objects to the cross’s placement on public land.

“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,” he 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.”

Added Phillips, “[The rally] is basically to say, ‘mess with the cross, you mess with us.’”

Elsewhere in Grand Haven, cooler heads may be prevailing. Community members engaged in relatively civil debate on the issue during an Oct. 15 public meeting. More than 200 residents turned out to discuss what should be done with the Dewey Hill cross at a “Community Conversation” forum hosted by the Tribune.

According to a report by the Michigan news website, most attendees favored leaving the cross where it is – but a number of opposing opinions were also heard. 

“I believe the government has a responsibility to accommodate other faiths including Christianity,” said Grand Haven Community Baptist Church pastor Ray Paget. “They’re raising the cross up there 10 times a year [and] we do need to make this available to other religious organizations.”

During the forum, Michael Steinberg, legal director for the ACLU of Michigan, listed several possible outcomes for the cross conundrum.

“The city has two choices, well, three choices with respect to speech using the hydraulic system,” Steinberg said. “No. 1, it could designate it a place for government speech, it could just say no speech at all or, No. 3, they could make it a designated public forum.”